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Upper Valley Faith Groups Consider Creating A Sanctuary Network For Undocumented People

Rebecca Sananes
A group of parishoners and their pastor from Lebanon discuss ways their religious community can provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.

Faith groups in the Upper Valley are discussing ways to provide sanctuary for undocumented residents fearing deportation.

Over the weekend about 100 people, from different denominations, spent the day learning about the immigrant community and ways to protect them.

The room at the Hanover Friends Meeting house buzzed as people of all faiths clustered together sitting on folding chairs.

They are tasked with finding ways for each of their churches, synagogues or mosques could provide sanctuary for those hiding from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

ICE has increased its efforts to deport those without legal status across the nation in recent months.

A group of four women from the Lebanon United Methodist Church huddle together to talk about how they have begun to think about immigration issues.

“I knew I didn't know much about the immigrant community but I didn't realize how much I didn't know about immigration,” says Cally Lavigne of Lebanon. “And what I've heard is appalling, disgusting, revolting, nauseating,” she concluded emphatically.

Some went as far to describe their potential plans using the term "underground railroad" by connecting different houses of worship as an Upper Valley Sanctuary network.

They also discussed the term "sanctuary" broadly – looking at ways to provide food, gift certificates and car shares for those afraid of being taken by ICE.

A theme that emerged for the mostly white crowd was the idea that nothing should be done about providing sanctuary without the input of those who have experienced living in the United States as immigrants.

Maria Ortiz is from Colombia and now has legal status. Ortiz stood up in front of the crowd to share her experience.

“This is a feeling that I cannot translate," Ortiz said. “This is a feeling that only you can feel when you go to other country and be illegal immigrant. It's so powerful that feeling – to feel no power, that you feel less than human.”

This meeting was co-sponsored by the United Valley Interfaith Project, a group which includes 15 different faith communities around the Upper Valley.

"[In the 1980s] We all came together to provide the basic necessities, to provide healthcare, employers offered jobs when in fact it was illegal for them to do so. This community really stood up." — Kathleen Shepherd, a member of the Hanover Friends Meeting group

Sanctuary is not an official legal status, but since the 2016 election the number of faith groups that have publicly identified themselves as a sanctuary for undocumented people has doubled around the country.

But it's not a new concept.

In the 1980s sanctuary was discussed around the Guatemalan Civil War. Kathleen Shepherd, a member of the Hanover Friends Meeting provided the audience with a little history:

“Guatemala was a little different because the United States had a cozy relationship with the Guatemalan government – asylum was not an alternative for Guatemalans,” Shepherd explain. “So that put us in a position to try and protect some people who were not going to get protection any other way.”

As a result, in the 1980s the Hanover Friends Meeting house – the very building they are in today – became a physical sanctuary for a Guatemalan family.

“We did not do that alone by any means,” Shepherd clarified. “The whole community was very much engaged. We all came together to provide the basic necessities to provide healthcare, employers offered jobs when in fact it was illegal for them to do so. This community really stood up.”

Now, everyone at this meeting will go back to their own parishes across the region to gage enthusiasm for this cause.

They'll be meeting again as a group in the coming months to create actionable plans for a sanctuary network in the Upper Valley.

Rebecca Sananes was VPR's Upper Valley Reporter. Before joining the VPR Newsroom, she was the Graduate Fellow at WBUR and a researcher on a Frontline documentary.
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