LOUISVILLE – Here’s an idea: Use the national offices of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a place to offer sanctuary for immigrants facing deportation.
J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA), raised that possibility during a meeting Sept. 20 of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA), following a powerful presentation by Teresa Waggener and Amanda Craft, who work in the denomination’s Office of Immigration Issues, regarding the work Presbyterians are doing to assist vulnerable immigrants.
Because of changes in policy the Trump administration has implemented, now “everybody is a priority for deportation” – all 11 million undocumented individuals, said Waggener, a lawyer.
As people of faith, “it’s our challenge to see God’s image in every person,” Craft said.
The immigration issues office offers resources for congregations that are considering offering sanctuary. If that’s what a congregation chooses to do, “you might be breaking some laws along the way,” Craft said. “Don’t make that the reason why you don’t do something. Please make it the reason why you plan. … As people of faith, it’s not about following the law of the governing body. It’s about following the higher law.”
While no decisions have yet been made, Nelson said he’s exploring the idea of how the PC(USA) might use its headquarters building in downtown Louisville as a resource in this work.
“We have six floors in this building,” Nelson told COGA. “We have at least two showers.” He’s interested in how that space could be used to “model for this whole community what the role of the church nationally and locally could be.”
There might be space for a day care. The building has a cafeteria. Local churches – and not just Presbyterians – could send volunteers. “What a powerful statement it would be, both ecumenically and in relationship to our denomination if this became a hub for grounding the move towards sanctuary cities here, by actually declaring sanctuary,” Nelson said.
The building has a chapel. “We could pray and sing and maybe even start an immigrant congregation,” he said.
Nelson said he’s had conversations about the idea with lawyers for the PC(USA), “and they’ve been very helpful.”
He’s thinking of “what does it mean for a national church building to be used to send a signal – this is who we are? … There’s no excuse why we can’t do it. This is the word of the Lord.”
The discussion ended with Nelson leading the group in prayer for those involved in immigration advocacy work, and for immigrants facing the pain of detainment and deportation.
That kind of conversation – what can be done differently in the name of mission – is bubbling up all over these days, although it’s not always clear which of these possibilities will bloom into reality.
COGA is meeting from Sept. 19-21 during a bonanza week of PC(USA) gatherings – including the Way Forward Commission (Sept. 18-19); 2020 Vision Team (Sept. 19); and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (Sept. 21-23). Way Forward is convening a group with representatives from all six PC(USA) to talk about the use of the headquarters building. Ideas already in the mix include renting space in the building to raise more revenue; making room for a leadership training institute; or even selling the building and using the money for mission.
Barbara Gaddis, COGA’s chair, spoke at one point of “the need to put the brakes on renting out space in this building” – leaving space for some of Nelson’s initiatives. A preliminary per capita budget for 2019-2020, not yet approved, lists $50,000 per year for a training institute for 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Here’s an idea that didn’t get talked about at the meeting Sept. 20: whether the PC(USA) should alter its plan for holding General Assembly in St. Louis in June 2018. That is likely to come up Sept. 21 – and in the meantime Presbyterians have been using social media and sending emails and other messages to make their views known, following days of public protests after the Sept. 15 acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former St. Louis police officer charged with murder after shooting a black man, Lamar Smith, five times in 2011.
The PC(USA) long ago signed contracts for the assembly to be held in St. Louis – and the price for breaking them unquestionably would be expensive.
The conversations also involve the advantages of showing up – how the PC(USA) can be an ally of those involved directly in justice work in St. Louis and how its presence in that city at General Assembly in June and at the gatherings of mid council leaders in October could be a means of providing prayer, public witness and support for those involved directly in that city’s justice work. Others contend that boycotting St. Louis could be an effective means of demonstrating disapproval.
Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly, told the Way Forward Commission that this is an issue COGA is likely to talk about– not necessarily to advocate moving the 2018 General Assembly out of St. Louis, but to discuss how the PC(USA) can best work with justice advocates in the city and be a force for prophetic witness, including through its Hands and Feet initiative.