Sanctuary Ministries at First Congregational Church
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
September 26, 2022: Ithaca’s Only Sanctuary Church Fulfills Mission; Immigrant Mother and Daughter Now Free to Live without Fear of Deportation
With the support of the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance (ISA), the First Congregational Church of Ithaca (FCCI), affiliated with the United Church of Christ (UCC)), in July 2020 welcomed a teen mother and her young daughter into the apartment they built to provide sanctuary for immigrants at risk of deportation by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). Drucila Francisco Mateo and Jessie lived at the church for more than two years.
On Sunday September 25, the FCCI and ISA community celebrated this act of radical welcome, and Drucila and Jessie’s move out of the church and into new independence. They spoke during the church worship and participated in a communal meal where Guatemalan foods were shared.
“My experience being in the sanctuary was very nice. I met many good people,” Drucila said. “The wait was long but it was worth it because now I have my legal residency. Thanks to the support I never had to worry about if I was going to have food, which is the most important thing. Thanks to everyone who supported me. It means a lot to me.”
Having come to the United States as a young teen to escape violence and poverty in Guatemala, Drucila was nonetheless vulnerable to deportation back to an uncertain fate. She was, however, eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), which offered a pathway to legal residency. The sanctuary apartment at FCCI provided protection from deportation while her case was being adjudicated.
“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” reads the UCC’s fundamental statement of welcome. In May 2019, FCCI members voted overwhelmingly to become a sanctuary church, resolving “to live into these moral principles to help ease the suffering in our time of fellow human beings and children of God, documented or under-documented, we the members of First Congregational Church of Ithaca are declaring ourselves a Sanctuary Church as part of our covenantal relationship with the UCC and our commitment as individuals to follow Christ.”
Reverend Dr. David A. Kaden, senior minister of FCCI, believes that providing sanctuary should be a core mission of the church. “In our faith tradition, offering shelter to the vulnerable is a sacred calling,” he said. “Prophets, poets, and Jesus himself spoke of this. Jewish law states, ‘The foreigners residing among you must be treated as citizens. Love them as you love yourself.’ Being a sanctuary church is a ministry of love that connects us to the core spirit of our tradition: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.”
Despite the fact that Drucila and Jessie lived at the church during the height of the pandemic, members of FCCI found their presence deeply moving. Amy Stoll, who became Drucila’s legal guardian as part of the SIJS process, said that “our bond is more like mother-daughter than mere friends. I began my involvement with the sanctuary ministry to help others and to give what I could but I have received as much or more in the loving, generous, giving friendships with Drucila and Jessie.”
Andy Weislogel, co-chair of the FCCI Sanctuary Ministries Team, summed up the feelings of all who contributed to the sanctuary effort over the past two years. “I have been humbled by Drucila’s bravery in putting her trust in a group of total strangers and taking on a life of confinement, during a pandemic, in the hope of bettering herself and Jessie through the experience,” he said. “I am thrilled to see her on solid enough footing now to make her own choices going forward.”
April 19, 2021: Read an article from Ithaca Week about our sanctuary space: “Sanctuary Space: An Ithaca Church’s Efforts to Welcome All”
Make a donation towards necessary building improvements for hospitality and security to welcome a sanctuary guest to First Congregational Church of Ithaca
First Congregational as a Sanctuary Church
On May 5, 2019, following a process of education and discernment, the First Congregational Church of Ithaca (FCCI)’s membership voted to become a Sanctuary Church, pledging to provide shelter as needed for undocumented immigrants while their legal cases are in process. Specifically, FCCI agreed to: 1) Educate themselves and the community about immigration-related issues; 2) Advocate for justice and comprehensive humane immigration reform; and 3) Accompany and support immigrants and their families, at their request, when facing immigration related hearings or meetings, or as guests in sanctuary. FCCI partners actively with the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance (ISA), whose member congregations have committed to helping FCCI in the form of material, interpersonal and spiritual support.
The Rev. Dr. David Kaden, Senior Minister of the First Congregational Church, stated: “Becoming a sanctuary church is an extension of one of our core principles in the United Church of Christ: ‘no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here’. Engaging in the Sanctuary process is a statement of extravagant welcome for at-risk members of our community, modeled on the principle of God’s unconditional grace offered to all.”
“The act of declaring ourselves a sanctuary congregation in solidarity with so many Ithaca faith communities and seasoned advocacy groups is designed to further a climate of welcome, compassion, and justice amid the omnipresent reminders of bias toward immigrants in today’s news cycle,” said Andy Weislogel, co-lead for the FCCI Sanctuary Ministries Team.
What is Sanctuary?
Since Christianity’s early days, church buildings have sometimes offered refuge for fugitives from arrest. In more recent times, this Christian witness has surfaced during periods of moral urgency—in the aiding of escaped enslaved people by abolitionist churches after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, in the hiding of Jews by the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, and by civil protest of Jim Crow segregation by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Generally speaking, a Sanctuary Guest is an under-documented immigrant at risk of deportation by Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and either has or is in the process of securing legal representation. While there is currently no law preventing ICE officials from entering a church property, an internal memorandum of October 24, 2011 instructs ICE not to enter so-called “sensitive locations”, including places of worship. This forbearance offers churches a unique opportunity for protection and witness to individuals in need. Typically, the provision of physical sanctuary is accompanied by a public announcement via the media, to ensure openness for legal reasons and to enlist public advocacy and support for the individual in sanctuary.
No two sanctuary situations are alike, as the needs of immigrant individuals and families always differ, and immigration policy and its enforcement are constantly shifting. Supporting a sanctuary guest requires patience, resources, and the contributions of many hearts and hands.
Follow the FCC Ithaca Sanctuary Church Facebook page to receive the latest news.
The Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance
In March 2018, Ithaca-area congregations, community organizations, and concerned community members launched an interfaith coalition to stand in solidarity with those immigrants in our community and region at risk of deportation by ICE. The Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance is a coalition of congregations, community organizations, and concerned individuals in and around Ithaca that supports immigrants fleeing violence or in danger of deportation. The current member organizations are:
- St. Paul’s United Methodist Church
- First Baptist Church in Ithaca
- Congregation Tikkun v’Or Ithaca Reform Temple
- First Unitarian Society of Ithaca
- St. Catherine of Siena Parish
- Forest Home Chapel United Methodist Church
- Living Hope Fellowship
- First Congregational Church of Ithaca (United Church of Christ)
ISA is closely allied with the Cornell Farmworker Program, who address the needs and promote the acceptance of our largely under-documented neighbors hard at work on dairy and other farms in central New York. ISA members have been immensely helpful in organizing fundraising and raising visibility about Sanctuary efforts in Ithaca.
Donations of funds and furnishings, and the volunteer labor of ISA members and our broader support network enabled the transformation of FCCI’s church youth room into a sanctuary guest apartment in the fall of 2019. ISA faith groups have also provided volunteers and funds for a weekly rotation of grocery deliveries and other needs for our sanctuary guests, and provided them with transportation, companionship, and educational opportunities.
The Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance invites other congregations, organizations, and members of the community to join us in assisting those at risk. Contact Michael Smith for more information or to get involved, firstname.lastname@example.org, 607.272.4730.
The FCCI Sanctuary Ministries Team
SMT meets monthly to further the goals of Educating, Advocating for, and Accompanying immigrants in need in our community and region. Members of our team meet bi-weekly with ISA volunteers to check in with our sanctuary guests’ needs and wellbeing and get ahead of upcoming issues. In addition to assisting our current sanctuary guests, SMT members participate in collecting and distributing clothing and food for farmworkers, driving immigrants to medical and legal appointments, serving as legal guardians, and speaking to other faith groups and organizations about our efforts.
How can you help?
Here is a list of activities for which FCCI Sanctuary Team and ISA are always seeking volunteers:
- Driving guests to appointments (medical, legal) and shopping, and educational opportunities
- Grocery shopping
- Providing childcare during meetings and adult class time
- Offering interpreter service for interacting with medical and legal professionals
- Serving as legal guardian for immigrant minors
- Collecting, sorting, distributing clothing for farmworkers
- Coordinating publicity and communications for Sanctuary Efforts
- Helping to plan, publicize, and execute fundraisers
- Providing companionship and English conversation for guests