During the first half of 2017, members of Forest Hill engaged Session and the Trustees around welcoming refugees and supporting non-citizen immigrants who live in our communities. A dinner was held with US Together, an organization helping refugees. A meeting was also held with representatives from HOLA Ohio, an organization based in Painesville that helps immigrants facing deportation. Both Session and the Trustees supported these conversations.
After these meetings, a two-to-three-month process for the leadership of Forest Hill Church to decide to become a Sanctuary Church and possibly hosting one or more individuals who are facing deportation was proposed. This was to be part of the August 28 Session meeting agenda. However, Rev. Lentz received a phone call on August 5 from HOLA relating an immediate need to provide sanctuary for an individual facing deportation. This required this process to be fast-tracked. A special Session meeting was called for August 6.
The individual facing deportation was from the Akron area, had been in the U.S. for over 20 years, worked, and paid taxes. She was a homeowner. She had no criminal record. She had four US citizen children, ranging in age from 4 to 20. Her oldest daughter was studying at Kent State University. Years before, she had been given an order of deportation after a fraudulent attorney submitted a poorly done application for a green card, the process to begin a path to citizenship. She was given a stay of removal in 2011, which allowed her to stay and work in this country. This stay has been renewed annually at her check-ins with immigration. When she went for her 2017 annual check-in, immigration officials, without warning, put a GPS ankle monitor on her, telling her she needed to leave the country by September. This news devastated her family and many in the community.
At the August 6 meeting, Session reviewed what Sanctuary from a biblical, historical, and Presbyterian perspective is. Sanctuary is an ancient practice of providing refuge in sacred spaces from secular legal action. There are many scriptural references to provide sanctuary, including Leviticus: “The alien living among you must be treated as one of your native-born” and Matthew: “I was a stranger, and you invited me in.” In 2016, the PC(USA) General Assembly reaffirmed support for the ministry of sanctuary and the ethical obligations of congregations to defend a family’s integrity when faced with deportation. The General Assembly called on congregations to provide sanctuary in appropriate circumstances to express the scriptural call to love our neighbor.
During the Session discussion, the logistics for providing suitable living space and amenities and legal issues were reviewed. It wasn’t known if the woman threatened with deportation would be staying at the church alone or with all or some of her children. It was noted if we were to go forward that a good communications plan was needed for the congregation and the groups using the church and the community. The trustees reported that they had already investigated the location and cost to install a shower. Since the church has a full kitchen in the wing where the living quarters might be located, the woman could cook for herself, provided groceries were brought to her. It was discussed that someone would most likely need to stay with the woman at night, as we did for our Family Promise guests.
Following the lengthy discussion, it was moved that Forest Hill church provide Sanctuary for whatever length of time was needed to work out the woman’s legal status. The motion was seconded.
Since this was such a significant decision, Reverend Lentz asked for other references that would help us make this momentous decision. Some of those cited included: “Lord prepare me to be a Sanctuary,” “Give me your tired and your poor,” “Let the children come to me.”
After leading all in prayer, Reverend Lentz asked the Elders to vote either “Yes, I believe this is the will of God for FHC to take this action at this time” or “No, this is not part of God’s will for FHC at this time.”
The motion was unanimously approved.