Local churches discuss becoming sanctuary churches for immigrant - WSMV News 4

Local churches discuss becoming sanctuary churches for immigrants

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Hobson United Methodist Church served as a sanctuary church until it moved in 2004. (WSMV) Hobson United Methodist Church served as a sanctuary church until it moved in 2004. (WSMV)

When it comes to civil rights and social justice, churches have long stood in the gap as places of safe haven.

Several churches in Nashville are pledging to stand in solidarity with sanctuary churches that provide a place of refuge for immigrants who are facing possible deportation.

Pastor Sonnye Dixon ran a sanctuary church at Hobson United Methodist Church for several years up until 2004 when his church changed locations. They started providing shelter for gay and lesbian teens, and then adults battling addiction. When they learned there were immigrants facing deportation, they welcomed them in too.

"Our focus was around families," Dixon said. "There was generally one member of the family that was facing deportation. Mostly all of the children were born in the United States and would be able to stay, but it would be mostly the person who was providing the financial resources for the family of whom we may have learned people were looking for them. So we opened our doors until we could get them the necessary legal help."

Hobson said not all had the ending they fought for.

"There were a couple families that ended up being deported, but it gave them the opportunity to get some things in order to make some decisions and leave on their own terms," Dixon said.

While it is not legal to harbor illegal immigrants, churches are not often targeted.

"I think sometimes people have this false understanding that you're hiding families and you're trying to keep them away from officials," said Sophia Agtarap, a layperson in the United Methodist Church. "But, really we are also trying to help them 1.) feel safe, 2.) not have the families be split up, and 3.) have them actually experience due process."

Still, some have expressed concern about the possibility of retaliation.

"I do hope we have more congregations because I do think they are much more effective when they are small and not bringing attention to themselves," Dixon said. "As low key as you are able to keep it, I think that makes it much more successful and that means you've got to have a lot more congregations participating."

While his church is no longer offering a sanctuary due to a change in the facilities, he still stands in support of churches who can offer home-like environment he says is necessary to serve as a sanctuary. He sees the movement not as a political statement, but as a matter of humanity and faith.

"For us, it was not an act of civil disobedience. For us, this was an act of compassion," Dixon said. "I am not fearful that the law will prevail. I am more fearful that there will be congregations who will not be willing to take the risk. As we prepare to enter into this season of Lent for us, we can't be afraid of the consequences for standing up for what you believe is right."

There is a growing petition that had nearly 160 signatures vowing support to sanctuary churches in Nashville. Churches like Edgehill United Methodist, which has a long history of inclusion and social progress, are also committing to the movement.

Monday, the pastor of Edgehill John Feldhacker said this in a statement:

Since its founding in 1966 Edgehill UMC has always been a welcoming and inclusive congregation.  Originally founded in response to the civil rights movement as the first intentionally integrated congregation in Nashville, Edgehill has always welcomed any group of people feeling threatened, afraid, or at risk.

Given the current complicated landscape around immigration and the increased threat of deportation, Edgehill is committed to standing in solidarity with families at risk of being separated because of the announced increase in deportations.

Also recognizing the complexities surrounding issues of immigration and the need to protect our borders, Edgehill UMC encourages humane immigration and refugee policy reforms that both protect our country while honoring hardworking families seeking a better life or those fleeing violence in their native lands.

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