The Rev. Sharon Avril thinks of her church’s history helping runaway slaves on the underground railroad as she works to protect undocumented immigrants in Fresno.
“It smacks of slavery – separating families from children,” Avril says of deportations now occurring around the country.
To keep families together, Avril is prepared to use her own body to block the doors of Carter Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church if need be to prevent immigration enforcement agents from entering.
Her small church in southwest Fresno has limited resources, but she wants to do all she can to help those seeking a safe haven, even if that means people need to sleep in church pews.
We have always been a part of taking care of the disenfranchised and downtrodden and marginalized of society.
The Rev. Sharon Avril
Carter Memorial considers itself a sanctuary church, which means it’s willing to harbor undocumented immigrants facing the threat of deportation. Immigration agents are advised by the Department of Homeland Security that arrests at “sensitive locations such as schools, places of worship, and hospitals should generally be avoided.”
Avril has her concerns, but says she can’t live in fear of being arrested.
“If it saves one life, if it keeps one family together, then it’s worth it.”
Numerous groups working to protect undocumented immigrants have not heard of deportation raids in Fresno since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, but many are now preparing for them – including Fresno’s faithful.
At least several more area churches may soon become sanctuary churches, including the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, First Congregational Church of Fresno (Big Red Church), Wesley United Methodist Church, and those within the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, which includes Fresno.
Sanctuary churches have been making national headlines in other cities, including a Unitarian church in Denver that sheltered an immigrant who sought sanctuary after skipping an appointment with an immigration agent.
“I think the biggest question is, ‘Will the current administration respect what has been the practice, that if there are refugees on a church campus, that they won’t break that sanctuary, enter and arrest,’ ” says the Rev. Tim Kutzmark of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno.
The image I have is just this dark cloud over the community. How are we going to provide shelter when the rain and the thunder and the lightning start coming?
The Rev. Art Gramaje
Churchgoers at Fresno congregations considering becoming sanctuary churches are in the process of consulting lawyers, researching insurance coverage, and considering where and how to lodge and feed people. They’re also asking themselves tough questions, Kutzmark says, like, “Would leadership be willing to subject themselves to arrest?” Congregations having these discussions now are expected to vote on becoming sanctuary churches within a matter of weeks or days.
Some Fresno churches have designated themselves as sanctuaries before, including the Unitarian Universalists in the 1980s to shelter those fleeing violence in Central America. Member Betsy Temple says the political rhetoric about that group was much different than what is being said now about some undocumented immigrants.
“They were people who needed somewhere to go but they didn’t have the legal permission to come here, but they weren’t being branded as rapists and murderers,” Temple recalls, “and no one was sanctioning hate crimes or suggesting people who are here without documents are somehow criminals or fair targets for violence or hate.”
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, also has been working to support immigrants, but his mosque is not designating itself as a sanctuary.
“In this political climate, we have no clue on a day-to-day basis if the Muslim community is safe by themselves,” Nekumanesh says. “The mosque is not a safe space, unfortunately, right now.”
The Rev. Ara Guekguezian has been working to determine whether First Congregational Church would be safe and feasible for lodging and food storage.
“The difficult thing is most of us don’t build the facilities for our congregation anticipating housing people,” Guekguezian says. “That’s the biggest part of the discussion at First Congregational. We don’t have showers, no place to bathe – how can we welcome people if we don’t offer that? So it’s a very basic concern. … You don’t invite someone over for dinner and not have anything to offer them.”
Guekguezian says it may be that his congregation decides to help another church that can host immigrants. “We don’t want to offer a false sense of security. Saying yes with integrity is a big thing.”
There was no such discussion or vote at Carter Memorial, which plans to welcome any immigrant looking for a protective space from deportation. The church received a directive from its governing council of bishops in January that all African Methodist Episcopal churches in the nation would be sanctuary churches. It’s a decision Avril wholeheartedly supports.
“That should not be something we have to discuss,” Avril says. “That’s something we are called to do, to look after our brothers and sisters.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno – which represents more than 1 million Catholics – supports groups working to protect immigrants, but has not declared itself a sanctuary diocese like its neighbor to the north. Bishop Jaime Soto of the Diocese of Sacramento announced on Ash Wednesday that undocumented immigrants could take refuge in Catholic churches within his diocese with the support of parishioners.
Bishop Armando Ochoa of the Diocese of Fresno did, however, urge people to provide a “safe haven” to all the “vulnerable and rejected members of the human family” in a statement he issued Feb. 7 about immigrants and refugees.
“The care and protection of the human rights of immigrants and refugees is of paramount importance to us as people of faith,” Ochoa says in his statement. “We cannot and must not remain silent when faced with assaults against the life and well-being of people, especially children and vulnerable families, who are unable to defend themselves or who find themselves caught between the dark forces of political maneuvering and the urgent needs to simply survive.”
Jim Grant, director of the Social Justice Ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, was among an interfaith group of clergy that met with undocumented farmworkers in Fresno last week to hear their concerns.
“The biggest fear of this community that is undocumented is about the children that they will be leaving behind if they are deported,” Grant says.
The idea of separating children from their parents is something the Catholic Church will not support in any way.
Jim Grant, director of the Social Justice Ministry for the Diocese of Fresno
The Rev. Art Gramaje of St. Anthony Mary Claret Catholic Church calls the threat of deportations a “dark cloud” hovering over his parish, which he estimates to be 90 percent to 95 percent Mexican American.
“I’ve been trying to reassure people that we are going to do all that we can and we are going to walk with them,” Gramaje says. “They are not alone.”
To that aim, he has held two “Know Your Rights” forums at his church in recent months to educate parishioners about their rights if questioned by law enforcement.
Gramaje was encouraged by the support he heard for immigrants and refugees while attending the Vatican-sponsored U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto last month. Cardinal Peter Turkson opened the four-day conference with the reading of a letter from Pope Francis.
“This comes from the top – Pope Francis – that moral imperative to walk with immigrants,” Gramaje says.
Several people interviewed for this story quoted the same Bible passage from Matthew 25 to describe how their Christian faith calls them to help undocumented immigrants:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you come to visit me.”
In the Scripture, the people ask when they did this, and they receive this answer: “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ ”
I’m finding hope. It’s bringing out the best in so many people, and that best will ultimately prevail.
The Rev. Tim Kutzmark
Avril sees similarities between challenges facing undocumented immigrants and the African American community.
“There was always a movement to send us back to Africa,” Avril says. “We have always been the least of. We have to stand up, because if we don’t stand up for each other, who is going to do it? In these post-Jim Crow/slavery days, we have to dig back into our history to see how we got here today.”
She hopes her church’s decision to become a sanctuary will encourage others to “step up” to help undocumented immigrants.
“They are children of God,” Avril says. “We may not look the same, we may not speak the same language, but we are made in His image, which means we are all responsible to each other, and we can’t turn a blind eye to what’s going on.”
We are told to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. To do justice and to show kindness are very basic core principles for us.
The Rev. Ara Guekguezian
Some churchgoers are forging new friendships with members of groups unaffiliated with religion, such as Fresno Resistance, to better care for undocumented immigrants.
“I think it’s really an opportunity for people of faith to step in and lean into their faith,” says Luis Ojeda, an organizer of Fresno Resistance. “It’s one of those moments where Fresno is really trying to create a unified response and really stand with each other and figure out how we locally can respond.”
Faith in the Valley, including Faith in Fresno, has also been planning to advocate for legislation to protect undocumented people at a rally on March 15 at the state Capitol. On Monday evening, the group is organizing a Rapid Response Team training in Fresno to prepare a group of clergy and community members to assemble in the event of deportation raids to pray for those affected and document what is happening.
Kutzmark says he is proud of the work being done: “People aren’t hunkering down and hiding away.”
Temple of the Unitarian church has friends who are undocumented. She wants to be brave for them.
“They are wonderful, lovely people,” she says. “They work, they pay taxes, they file their tax return every year, they are not getting welfare, they are contributing to our economy. I know they have enriched my life tremendously with their love and their courage, their children. I often think they help me more than I help them. I couldn’t ask for better friends.”
Bishop David Rice of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin says supporting undocumented immigrants is “completely consistent with the Gospel, moreover, reflects the example of Jesus.”
“We should ensure that no one is on the margin – no one,” Rice says. “And when we find them, we stand with them.”
Know Your Rights forum: 11:30 a.m. March 12 at St. Anthony Mary Claret Catholic Church, 2494 S. Chestnut Ave., Fresno, after Sunday Mass.
Resources: The Diocese of Fresno recommends Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, and Kids in Need of Defense.
Rapid Response Team: Email email@example.com to learn more about responding to support immigrants facing deportation.
Advocate: Faith in the Valley groups will gather at the state Capitol from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 15 to show their support for SB54: the California Values Act and SB31: the Religious Freedom Act. People can register online at fblinks.com/stand.