by Karen Methot
Massachusetts Conference staff
On the mid-September evening when an emergency gathering of First Congregational Church Amherst members decided to offer sanctuary to Lucio Perez – a Guatemalan father of four who has lived in this country almost 20 years – Pastor Vicki Kemper says she knew only two things for sure: 1. The church was following what they believed to be Jesus’ call and the movement of the Spirit in taking this leap of faith; and 2. They really had no idea what they were getting into.
Once word got out, First Congregational began receiving financial donations from folks in the congregation and the progressive community of Amherst to pay for Lucio’s care, including the cost of converting a meeting room and former office space into a temporary home for Lucio and sleeping space for sanctuary ‘staff’; installing a portable shower; and covering additional heating costs. Fourteen different faith communities stepped forward to provide meals and company for Lucio and rides for his family to the church.
In opening their doors in welcome, sanctuary churches take on a critical humanitarian responsibility. The Conference both supports this mission and recognizes the significant fiscal responsibility involved, one that becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.
In response to the experience of First Congregational - a trail-blazing sanctuary church - and with awareness of the substantial costs associated with this unique ministry, the Massachusetts Conference has created the Sanctuary Churches Fund. (Download a flyer here.)
The Sanctuary Churches Fund – comprising donations from congregations and individuals responding to the call to care for neighbor - will be overseen and administered by the Immigration and Refugee Task Team of the Conference’s Justice and Witness Ministry Council. One hundred percent of donated funds will go directly to Level 1 sanctuary churches to support their ministry once they have a person in sanctuary. No administrative fees are involved.
In addition to helping Level 1 sanctuary churches provide shelter, food, clothing and other basic necessities to individuals in sanctuary, the Sanctuary Churches Fund could also be used by hosting churches to assist the family of the sheltered individual, since they too are living with loss of income and increased expenses.
The hope is that this fund will make sanctuary ministry possible and sustainable for more churches in the Massachusetts Conference.
According to John Allen of the Conference’s Immigration & Refugee Task Team, Level 1 sanctuary refers to a church that is willing to offer physical sanctuary to someone in their building. Level 2 is a congregation that is willing to offer material support to a church that has someone in sanctuary – for example, volunteers, meals, or rides. The most important need met by these volunteers is helping to fill the schedule of people staying at the church overnight.
Dawn Adams, of the Immigration and Refugee Task Team, is one of those sanctuary ‘staff’ persons who take a once-monthly turn walking the journey with Lucio. He has been provided this 24-hour volunteer support and hospitality since walking through the open doors of First Congregational Amherst on Oct. 18, 2017.
“The care of our neighbor, the refugee, the sojourner, is mandated in our scripture.” Adams said. “They are our brothers and sisters. As Christians, it is our duty to care and protect them, not subject them to harm.”
While the Immigration and Refugee Task Team does not maintain a network database, Allen says congregations that contact the team are offered resources and connections to organizations that facilitate sanctuary in more detail. There are currently four known Level 1 churches in the Massachusetts Conference. A dozen or more churches have declared themselves Level 2, according to the task team.
While the first few weeks at First Congregational were a blur of managing logistics, publicity requests, building space, finances, legal requirements and new relationships beyond their church, including a new interfaith sanctuary network, things have since quieted down in Amherst. Says Kemper: “Four months in, our learning curve is not as steep as it once was, but we continue to learn new and better ways to do this all the time. And, every day, our lives are more tightly intertwined with those of Lucio, his wife, Dora, and their four children.
“We don’t know how much longer this will continue, or what the end game will be,” Kemper said. “Offering sanctuary to Lucio has broken our hearts open and filled them beyond our imagining, and it may yet break them into pieces.”
To donate to the Sanctuary Churches Fund, please make your check payable to MACUCC, note that the contribution is for the Sanctuary Churches Fund, and send to: Massachusetts Conference, UCC, One Badger Road, Framingham, MA, 01702; or donate through our website here. The Fund is created solely through your donations.
Please be aware that if – God willing! – there comes a time when there is no longer a need for the Sanctuary Churches Fund, all remaining monies in the Fund will be transferred to the Massachusetts Conference special fund that assists churches affected by natural disasters.