There were plenty of steps along the way—from an inspirational sermon, to lengthy talks in committee, to a congregational vote and to forming a multifaith coalition.
But when the call came that Ana and her two small daughters were requesting sanctuary inside University Lutheran, a campus ministry in Cambridge, Mass., organizers wondered if they were fully ready to take on a round-the-clock ministry of such magnitude.
Ready or not, UniLu, as it’s known locally, didn’t hesitate. With some 150 members trained in sanctuary protocol, the congregation and its coalition members representing other Christian denominations and Jewish communities, prepared the new home for the family, ready to stand by her for as long as it took to get her status resolved.
Nearly half a year later, Ana (her real name hasn’t been revealed) and her children still live at UniLu, which remains committed to its sanctuary status, one that has gained them a fair amount of publicity—and occasional pushback.
It’s a fairly dramatic change for UniLu, which didn’t even discuss becoming a sanctuary site until late last year. That’s when Kris Rhude, a Harvard Divinity student and former UniLu intern, delivered a sermon about the topic.
“I didn’t know much about the sanctuary movement at all,” Rhude said. “But I had been talking with students at school with me who were undocumented, and I was interested in having us explore this possibility.”
After his sermon, a committee was formed with eight members who deliberated the idea of sanctuary. By January, the group forwarded a proposal to the congregation, which voted without dissent to approve the measure.
While prepping to be a sanctuary church would be new, Kathleen Reed, a pastor of UniLu, said the congregation had experience in housing those with needs. “We’ve hosted a homeless shelter during the cold months,” she said. “We’re in our 35th year of doing that, and it’s entirely run by Harvard students. Upward of 25 people have been sleeping in our basement, along with having hot meals, showers, washing machines. So we’ve had some skills in housing guests, as well as a thorough sense of our mission of giving ourselves away for sheltering people.”
Despite a clear focus on the mission, Rhude admitted he was nervous when the time came to put planning into action: “The first time we got a call, we didn’t feel prepared, but we had made a commitment, so we were ready to do the best that we could.”
That first call didn’t manifest into action, but Rhude said by the time Ana made the decision, they were more prepared.
“At the same time, I’m ashamed to say that a good part of my emotions was fear,” he said. “I had a lot of fear about what it might mean for our congregation. And I’m ashamed to say that because we’re in a congregation of great privilege and there isn’t a whole lot of risk. But I also think that because it was frightening, that also helped inform me that we were doing the right thing. If we of privilege aren’t giving up some of that privilege, I’m not sure we’re really helping.
“To walk with someone who is vulnerable, we have to be vulnerable ourselves.”
In a Boston Globe story by Lisa Wangsness, Ana is described as being taken “against her will from her small hometown in Ecuador to the United States.” The Globe reported that she was detained for about a year in Arizona in 2012 and later came to Boston. She lost her asylum and was told she had to leave the country last December.
For now, home is a few rooms at UniLu, which members, including Evelyn Bonader, helped prepare and convert to meet their needs. “To be honest, I was pretty certain there wouldn’t be anybody,” she said. “Suddenly, we were told they would be here in two days. My reaction was just to get busy.”
Bonader said an unexpected part of being in the coalition is the new friendships and bonds being built among the communities in the coalition. Conversations and sharing stories of faith have become a weekly part of the experience, along with shopping for Ana.
Since UniLu has become a sanctuary church, they’ve received a few negative phone calls. Reed said one person left a long message explaining why their actions weren’t Christian.
But Reed, Rhude and Bonader all believe that even if the actions are opposed to current law, they are following the rules of their faith.
While she would never hope it would happen, Bonader said she would go to jail for assisting Ana or others who might come after her.
Rhude hopes the ELCA will pass a national resolution approving the sanctuary movement. “I believe our faith is really clear regarding how we as Christians and as Lutherans are expected to treat strangers, foreigners, immigrants,” he said.