MERCED, Calif. — The holiday season’s traditional offerings of hope and support come at a crucial time for many local undocumented residents, as questions still swirl around President-Elect Donald Trump and his deportation plans.
Such rhetoric weighs heavily on the hearts of many of Merced’s religious congregations, and a few are already taking steps to offer sanctuary to those in need.
Seventeen congregations throughout the Merced area are currently in the process of adopting official designation as a sanctuary space, says Crisantema Gallardo, a community organizer with the Merced Organizing Project (MOP).
The faith-based MOP is part of the PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) national advocacy network and works closely with the regional Faith in the Valley advocacy group.
While many within the undocumented community are involved in local Catholic congregations, Faith in the Valley leaders encourage churches of all denominations to get involved.
“We want to be inclusive and open to all races and all faiths,” Gallardo said.
Participating churches and places of worship that act as sanctuaries will commit to house, feed and even financially support undocumented residents in immediate danger of deportation.
According to an official sanctuary resource packet from Faith in the Valley, sanctuary congregations must also be prepared to house undocumented individuals or families for an undetermined amount of time, all the while offering a “community of love, hospitality and fellowship for those living in your care.”
Since the election, MOP and its partners have been meeting with local clergy to discuss plans for a sanctuary network. In addition to the 17 Merced-area congregations already expressing interest in the plan, Faith in the Valley has identified nearly three dozen more churches throughout the region.
Faith in the Valley leaders say their hope is to create a network of safe spaces spanning most of the Valley between Bakersfield and Stockton.
“For now, most of these churches are being identified in communities where Faith in the Valley already has a foothold,” Gallardo said. “But we’re looking to expand to Madera and Tulare counties in the New Year.”
Once a church has decided to become a sanctuary, MOP and Faith in the Valley are requesting that the congregation make it known publicly. By spreading the word throughout the community, churches will make it easier for those in need when it comes time to actually seek shelter, Gallardo said.
“The idea of churches acting as a sanctuary or place of refuge for those in need has been around for a very long time,” she said. “Many churches began offering sanctuary to the undocumented in the 1980s and we’ve seen another resurgence since 2014.”
While Gallardo and other Faith in the Valley organizers acknowledge there is some risk involved for churches offering sanctuary to the undocumented, the odds have historically been in the congregation’s favor. Over the last 40 years, no church has been prosecuted for offering sanctuary to the undocumented, Gallardo said.
“It would look very bad, too, if any law enforcement officials were photographed or taped arresting a priest,” she said. “Churches are sacred spaces and the [public relations] would be very bad if anyone raided them.”
Faith in the Valley is still exploring the legal ramifications for religious groups offering sanctuary. Gallardo said that for many in the faith community, the law is thought of similarly to scripture.
“It’s up to interpretation a lot of the time,” she said.
Clergy members with Faith in the Valley agree. During a recent press conference on the sanctuary movement, several highlighted biblical teachings urging the faithful to help those in need.
“The sacred texts call for resistance to a false hierarchy and remind us of our particularly sacred obligation to protect all people,” said Pastor Curtis Smith of Destiny Christian Center in Stockton.
While sanctuary spaces are most urgently needed for the undocumented, Gallardo said the network would also be available to LGBT and Muslim residents who also may feel threatened by the changing political landscape.
“It’s all about creating an inclusive community,” she said. “With those sanctuaries, we want to let them know that in that congregation, they are welcome and seen, and that they are going to be treated with respect.”
“For many of our clergy members, it’s been especially important this holiday season because, historically, many of us are celebrating another immigrant family of color who sought sanctuary,” Gallardo added. “And here we have the chance to do something now for those in similar circumstances.”
Hannah Esqueda writes for We'Ced Youth Media, a project of New America Media.