In recent months, as churches across the country have felt an increasing need to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, a Gainesville church has joined the movement.
Westminster Presbyterian Church United could be the first sanctuary church in Gainesville — the congregation has been working with different community groups and organizations to get the support it needs in order to become a sanctuary church.
If the church declares itself a sanctuary church, it will join more than 800 faith communities across the nation that have already done so.
After weeks of deep discussion, in early April, the leadership group of the church officially voted to become a sanctuary for undocumented individuals.
Larry Green, reverend of Westminster Presbyterian Church United, said there is huge support across his congregation.
“This is a congregation which has historically been considered very socially proactive, almost like a rebel,” Green said.
He also said that the idea of becoming a sanctuary church came from Gainesville’s Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice, a network of synagogues and churches that work on local immigration issues. The group sought to identify a church that was willing to help and had a congregation that supported the idea.
“It thought there was a need in Gainesville for a sanctuary church,” Green said. “We then brought that topic to our leadership group and have been talking about it for a couple of years now.”
Green also said that offering sanctuary to those individuals who have a chance of success during the deportation process is a way of acting out against these government practices.
“We believe this is unfair and that the practices that are being implemented are unbiblical,” he said.
Westminster Presbyterian Church has also been working closely with Madres Sin Fronteras (Mother without Borders), an organization that fights for the rights of undocumented immigrants.
Beto Soto, coordinator of Madres Sin Fronteras, said that there are between 3,000 to 5,000 undocumented individuals in Alachua County.
For the past couple of months, Westminster Presbyterian Church United had been working on logistics, recruiting volunteers, gathering financial support and answering any questions about a “sanctuary church” designation from its members.
The church is still working on approving policies and procedures and assuring that the house where individuals would receive sanctuary is habitable and safe. It is not anticipating taking anyone into sanctuary until new ICE agents are trained and deployed in about four months, Green said.
Green also said an individual or family would receive sanctuary if they are expecting imminent action from immigration officials. The individuals would be vetted by Madres Sin Fronteras and brought to the church to enter the sanctuary.
An immigration attorney would work with the individuals or families on their case, Green said.
Entering into sanctuary is not a legal protection. It does not stop officials from arresting undocumented immigrants. Officers with a warrant for an individual can arrest them anywhere.
The Immigration and Nationality Act prohibits anyone from knowingly harboring undocumented individuals. There is no official legislation that keeps law enforcement from entering a church.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has a policy regarding “sensitive areas,” which advises officials to avoid detaining undocumented immigrants in schools, health care facilities and places of worship.
Sam Trickey, a Westminster Presbyterian Church United member, said he supported the idea of the church becoming a sanctuary, because he has worked with undocumented individuals and knows that they go through very tough circumstances.
“If we can make sure we can fulfill that commitment, then I’m strongly in favor of it,” Trickey said.