Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Columbia Heights Credit: Darrow Montgomery

On the second Sunday after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, congregants at a church exactly two miles north of the White House packed their sanctuary. By the time church started, it was standing room only at All Souls Unitarian. More than 700 were in attendance, and they offered exuberant applause in response to a message they needed to hear.

“The only way to confront a big bully,” preached the Rev. Robert M. Hardies, “is with an even bigger love.”

Fear was already thick in the neighborhood—the heart of D.C.’s Central American community. And though most All Souls members are not recent immigrants, emotions were running high. On that same Sunday, protesters were filling major airports across the nation to fight the new president’s order banning entrants from seven majority-Muslim countries. It seemed a matter of time before he would make good on his campaign promises to deport immigrants already living in the U.S. 

“When it became clear that many of our neighbors would be threatened and vulnerable,” Hardies said from the pulpit, “the pastors started picking up the phone and started calling one another.”

Those pastors, and many more, are now strategizing to protect the region’s immigrants as policies change. All Souls has hosted two meetings for congregations that want to help immigrants. Nearly 600 people from more than 150 congregations across the region attended one or both meetings. A new, local volunteer-based organization called Sanctuary DMV, staffed by experienced immigrant rights advocates, is collaborating with congregations, as is D.C.’s chapter of PICO, a national network of faith-based groups. 

Some congregations are prepared to host immigrants in fear of deportation within their own buildings. Others are offering trainings for people who want to be allies—accompanying immigrants to court hearings or ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) hearings, or even rushing to the scene of an ICE raid to take video and make sure agents have a proper warrant for each person they are arresting. 

Houses of worship in D.C. have done this kind of work before. In the 1980s, several provided sanctuary for Central American refugees fleeing civil war. Right now, nearly 100,000 immigrants live in the District, and more than 11 million live in the U.S.

In D.C., Temple Sinai is among the first congregations to publicly offer sanctuary. “We declare ourselves to be a Sanctuary Congregation willing to host in our building temple employees, their families, and certain other members of our community who might need temporary protection as they seek to address their immigration status,” reads a letter signed by Rabbi Jonathan Roos and posted to the temple’s Facebook page. Far from the city’s Latin American enclave, Temple Sinai’s board voted Feb. 15 on the measure, which is meant to include immigrants connected to the temple’s many service programs.

One Temple Sinai board member, 84-year-old Ann Ingram, hosted a Vietnamese refugee in the 1970s as part of a temple program. The refugee lived with her and her husband for a year before getting an apartment, marrying, and having three children, all of whom went on to graduate from college. “That’s part of being a good Jew,” Ingram says. “You help the unfortunate and the stranger in your midst.” The congregation also helped Holocaust survivors after World War II and Central American refugees in the 1980s.

Rabbi Roos and his congregants had already been talking about how they could help immigrants when he heard that All Souls was offering workshops for congregations interested in providing sanctuary in some form. He attended with several temple volunteers. 

“There are few other issues in our current civic life that are as compelling and related to Judaism as this,” Roos says. “Our [recent] history is a history of refugees who were denied entry. And our ancient history, and our Jewish values and holidays, constantly remind us of the time we were slaves in Egypt, freed from slavery, and wandered for 40 years looking for a home.” 

Rev. Robert M. Hardies at All Souls Credit: Darrow Montgomery

All Souls is considering hosting an immigrant as one option in its overall commitment to sanctuary. “All Souls was a sanctuary congregation in the 1980s and did provide refuge to a Salvadoran asylum refugee,” Hardies says. “So we do have some kind of experience as a congregation with this.”

And just up the road from All Souls, St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal church began its sanctuary work about two years ago, when unaccompanied minors were crossing into the U.S. from its southern border in droves. St. Stephen has longstanding English and Spanish-speaking congregations. 

“People are really very afraid, and there is also a feeling of uncertainty,” says Yoimel Gonzalez, a lay volunteer on the St. Stephen sanctuary committee. Laura Stump Kennedy, who also serves on that committee, says they are devoted to their immediate neighbors. “We are hoping to focus it very locally so we can start to lay the groundwork for future supportive relationships, including forming rapid response networks or helping people show up in a moment of need,” Stump Kennedy says. 

Hardies’ approach matches hers. He envisions a “mini underground railroad” of sanctuary spots within the Columbia Heights neighborhood and nearby Mount Pleasant, as well as other Latino enclaves in the District. 

“If, God forbid, there were ever a raid … in the neighborhood, we would have an opportunity, a system by which people could respond immediately in a situation like that, and folks could come in solidarity and show up and try and protect the community,” Hardies says. 

At a recent weekday evening Mass at Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic church, two blocks from St. Stephen and where many neighborhood immigrants worship, about 100 parishioners listened to a homily addressing fear of “Inmigración,” or the agents who might knock on an immigrant’s door and take them to a detention center. The church celebrates Mass in Spanish at least once a day, English once a day, and in Vietnamese and Creole every Sunday. A bright banner outside the church reads, “Immigrants & Refugees Welcome.” The same banner hangs outside St. Stephen. 

“This is real. The fear is real, the anxiety is real,” says Alicia Wilson, executive director of La Clinica Del Pueblo, a Latino health and medical center across the street from All Souls. “The way it changes people’s day to day is real. They make a choice to go to the grocery store or not. They make a choice to go to the doctor or not, based on protecting their families. It’s real. And it affects every aspect of an immigrant’s life.”

Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Columbia Heights Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Sanctuary DMV, the organization helping area congregations and even local non-churchgoers who want to participate, was just founded in December. The people running it volunteer their time, often in the evenings and on weekends. What they are not short on, however, is experience. Many of them are practiced at organizing for immigrant rights.  

Volunteer Ben Beachy was first exposed to the sanctuary concept as a toddler in the 1980s in rural West Virginia. “Some of my earliest memories are being carried on the backs of men from El Salvador who were staying in my community in West Virginia, fleeing a U.S.-backed war, and trying to cross to Canada,” Beachy says. “And that’s because my Mennonite church became a stop on what was known as the Overground Railroad. It was a network of groups across the country that offered immigrants a place to stay.” 

Isaias Guerrero, who is helping coordinate congregations, grew up as an undocumented immigrant in Indiana. As a teenager, he helped create the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance. “I’m very lucky because I understood what the power of a united community can do to protect the most vulnerable, including myself,” Guerrero says. After 14 years undocumented, he is now in the country legally under DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, he says. 

And Maricelly Malave, who works as a legal assistant at Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, knows a good deal of U.S. immigration policy by memory. 

“This didn’t happen overnight from the election,” Malave told a crowd of area residents at a recent training for those interested in advocating for immigrant rights within their own neighborhoods. “The machines of structural violence were already in place.” 

The machines of resistance are in place, too. Malave proceeded to explain, in a presentation she appeared to know by heart, what immigrants and advocates should do in the face of ICE agents. Sanctuary DMV had advertised the workshop on its new Facebook page, and it was so popular that registration had to be cut off. (She also presented to the many faith leaders who gathered at All Souls.)

After Malave and several others spoke, the people at the meeting split into small groups organized by neighborhood, each beginning to work out how they could help their on a hyperlocal level. 

Last week, Sanctuary DMV volunteers canvassed door to door in the Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods to ensure residents know what to do in the event of a sudden ICE raid. 

Outside St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The D.C. area has not been immune to these surprise sweeps. In the early morning hours of Feb. 8, about a dozen ICE agents descended on a group of Latino men leaving Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church in Alexandria, Virginia. 

The church doubles as a hypothermia shelter for the homeless, and the men had spent the night there. They were walking to the shopping center across the street when ICE agents threw them against a wall, detained them, and questioned them for about two-and-a-half hours. Then two vans arrived and took seven of them away. Of the seven, two were found to have criminal records—a felony drug conviction for one and misdemeanor convictions for the other—and were arrested, according to an ICE official.  

At a press conference outside the Falls Church Metro station shortly after the raid, the church’s pastor, Rev. Keary Kincannon, spoke to a small crowd. “It’s unconscionable that a church would be focused on, that has a hypothermia shelter to bring in homeless individuals to keep them from freezing on the streets at night,” he said.

“We as disciples of Jesus Christ follow his teachings,” Kincannon added. “And he tells us that as we treat the least of these, is how we treat him. So when we detain people without cause, without any allegations of criminal activity, it’s the same as detaining Jesus Christ without cause, without any allegations of criminal activity.” 

The Alexandria raid is one of several that appears to violate ICE’s own “Sensitive Locations” policy, which mandates that its agents should not conduct arrests, interviews, searches, or surveillance at schools, hospitals, institutions of worship, or public demonstrations except in “exigent circumstances” such as an imminent risk of violence.

In Illinois last month, ICE apparently tricked an undocumented man into coming out of his church when an agent sent him a text pretending to be the man’s cousin. And last week in Texas, ICE agents took an undocumented woman with a brain tumor awaiting surgery from her hospital bed. In the Alexandria case, ICE claimed that the raid did not violate its own policy because the raid took place across the street, not on church property. ICE’s policy document, however, applies to locations “at or near” a place of worship. 

In recent sanctuary cases, ICE has respected the church thus far. Jeanette Vizguerra is currently living in the basement of First Unitarian Church in Denver. And Javier Flores García is living in Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Both sought sanctuary to stay near their families rather than face deportation for their offenses—Vizguerra for a 2009 traffic violation and for using a false Social Security number, and Flores García for crossing or trying to cross the border multiple times. Both cases are widely documented, and neither person made a snap decision to move into a church.

Living inside a church or synagogue for an indefinite period of time is a community-wide decision, advocates say. Entire congregations, the sanctuary-seeker’s family and attorneys, and supporting nonprofits make such a choice together. Miguel Andrade, a community organizer with the group Juntos in Philadelphia, has been working with Flores García and his family since well before he moved into the church in November. 

“Sanctuary is a communal act,” Andrade says. “It’s not just about the religious institution. It’s about how can you get the community involved and have other people also participating.”

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Rev. Sam Dessórdi Leite at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Seven area congregations have signed on to host immigrants within their buildings so far, according to Sanctuary DMV and PICO. Many are still having conversations with their congregants about what they will offer in an era of anti-immigrant fervor being fomented at the top levels of government. Participating congregations are preparing to announce their plans in late-March following a third meeting at All Souls in mid-March.

“There’s a bucket of things congregations can do,” says Richard Morales, who is helping houses of worship prepare through his job at PICO National Network. “From ‘Know Your Rights’ workshops to a rapid-response team, but also hosting a family and taking in a family that is vulnerable and facing deportation. And then there’s congregations that maybe can’t do that, but maybe they can provide money or some kind of support to those congregations that are.”

At La Clinica Del Pueblo, the neighborhood health center, staff members are receiving training on how to respond if ICE shows up at their clinic. They’ve also been leading Know Your Rights workshops for their patients. 

“As a community-based organization,” Wilson says, “our job is to try and create some calm amid the storm. Knowing that there are allies in the community, knowing that there are places that will keep you safe, is an enormous balm for people who are in constant stress.”

And at St. Stephen, congregants are keeping an active flow of conversation between their Spanish- and English-speaking congregations. The bilingual lay volunteers on the church’s sanctuary committee are critical to that effort. The priest, Rev. Sam Dessórdi Leite, recently set aside sermon time in the Spanish-speaking congregation to have a dialogue about how people are feeling and what they need. 

“The gospel asks people in churches to work on differences, to love neighbors—whomever they are,” says Yoimel Gonzalez, a parishioner working on the effort. “The word ‘sanctuary’ is a religious word. It’s a movement to create a space for being safe, in peace, and sharing it with others.”