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Becoming a Sanctuary Congregation: An Interview with Rev. Neal Anderson

By Sarah Movius Schurr

A photo of Rev. Neal Anderson, shoulders and head

Rev. Neal Anderson

Photo courtesy

Photo of Rev. Sarah Movius Schurr in front of a red door wearing a stole

Rev. Sarah Movius Schurr

On April 2, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada (UUFNN), accepted a request for sanctuary from David Chavez-Macias, a 30-year resident of the Reno community who was at immediate risk of deportation. This was the latest in a number of UU congregations in the Pacific Western Region who have opened their doors to sanctuary seekers or who have declared that they would be willing to do so.

PWR Congregational Life staff Rev. Sarah Movius Schurr sat down with the Senior Minister of UUFNN, the Rev. Neal Anderson, to talk about how this congregation became a sanctuary congregation and what that means to them as a religious community.

Rev. Schurr – First of all, can you tell us what it means when you say that you’re providing sanctuary?

Rev. Anderson – When we accept a request for sanctuary we are offering an undocumented immigrant at immediate risk of deportation a place to stay and to be safe. The reason this is possible is because Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) has stated in their policies that they will not apprehend individuals in ‘sensitive locations’ such as schools, hospitals or religious communities. The recent change in administration did introduce concerns about whether the policies of ICE would be maintained with regard to sensitive locations, but the Director of ICE at a town hall meeting in Sacramento in March suggested that the policy will be maintained, so churches should continue to be able to offer sanctuary in the current manner.

Rev. Schurr – David lives on the grounds at the congregation?

Rev. Anderson - What we are offering is space within our building, a safe space. Our campus is split into two buildings, the worship building and the administration building, which houses the religious education classrooms as well as the administrative offices. We provide a physical space on our campus, a room with a bed, a couch, access to a kitchen. Our youngest group have given up their usual religious education room as a space for David to stay.

Rev. Schurr - Can David leave the campus at all?

Rev. Anderson - We are here as David’s allies, and it’s really important that David makes decisions for himself about what he wants to do. Our best understanding is that David is at risk of being apprehended anytime he leaves the campus because he is no longer protected by being in a ‘sensitive location’. David is making the courageous decision to resist, resisting this immoral immigration system that would remove him from his four children and his wife as well as this community where he has lived for more than 30 years. Leaving the campus is sometimes a choice David could make. Our blessing as a congregation is that we have the resources and the space to offer our support to his resistance.

Before David entered sanctuary we met in my home, with our families, and talked a lot about what the experience would be like, based on the experiences of others who had been in sanctuary before. Jeanette Vizguerra, who is currently in sanctuary at First Unitarian Society of Denver, was recently featured on an NPR podcast called CodeSwitch (see March 29 episode Sanctuary Churches: Who Controls the Story). Jeanette speaks clearly about her, as the person living in sanctuary, having to be the ultimate decision maker. We’ve been working to connect David into this network of folks living in sanctuary who do have regular communication with each other. They share about their experiences and look for moments of solidarity with others who are also living in sanctuary across the country.

Rev. Schurr - How did you get connected with work around Immigration Reform?

Rev. Anderson – I was on sabbatical in the fall of 2014 and did a borderlinks trip with the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ). On that trip, I was inspired by the work done by Southside Presbyterian in Tucson, AZ and their leadership in the sanctuary movement in the 80s with Central American refugees fleeing war. They were working mostly in helping people with immediate practical assistance, but also took in people for sanctuary and helped build a broader network of churches to get involved in that work. I came back to the congregation and found that there was a lot of interest and passion for this issue among UUFNN congregants so our work began.

Rev. Schurr – How did the congregation become a sanctuary congregation?

Rev. Anderson – In early 2015 we got more engaged with our local People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) affiliate who are called Acting in Community Together Organizing Northern Nevada (ACTIONN). We became an ACTIONN partner and began to work more intentionally with them. They do a lot of work in trying to lobby and advocate and block deportations, but in the event that these efforts were unsuccessful, they asked if we would be willing to accept someone into sanctuary within the congregation, kind of a last option for dire circumstances.

So, that really started our discernment process as a congregation, asking what does it mean to be a sanctuary congregation, how do we do it, how do our Unitarian Universalist values call us to this work or to this action. Also, what risks might we be assuming in taking this on?

We reached out to UU Refugee and Immigrant Services and Education (UURISE), and to the UU Service Committee (UUSC) and UUCSJ and to other congregations that have done this before and learned as much as we could. We didn’t have consistent legal counsel, but we did consult throughout the process with UURISE, with Daniel Stracka and Katia Hansen, both of whom have been extremely helpful in understanding sanctuary. And since we started this process in early 2015, those organizations have done incredible work to build capacity and resources, like toolkits, for congregations interested in sanctuary.

Rev. Schurr – You accessed the wider network of groups and individuals doing this work. How did you help the congregation decide?

Rev. Anderson – We had appointed a committee to lead the process, and the head of our Sanctuary committee, Al Ferrenberg, who was very thorough as he didn’t want anyone in the congregation to come back and say, “Well, you didn’t tell us about this or that aspect of sanctuary.” So, we were very, very intentional in our investigations and communications with the congregation.

I thought the law was black and white, but there is so much gray. And so many questions we had as a religious community that we couldn’t get answers to. So then the decision was, do we take a leap of faith and engage in this prophetic witness, this call to justice, despite some of our fears we have about not having answers.

I said to the congregation: “Even if we go through this discernment process, even if we get to the end and decide, 'We’re not going to do this. We’re not ready,' the work of understanding our moral responsibilities, of understanding a broken immigration system, of understanding the stories of people caught up in it, our understanding is going to be expanded. It’s a blessing to us and it deepens who we are as a religious people. No matter what the outcome is, this is important work. In our own mission to grow in love, faith, justice and joy.”

So it wasn’t a quick weekend. There was more to it than that. We had a series of congregational gatherings, of cottage meetings, small groups, educational opportunities, and adult faith development activities. We had people involved in PICO’s National Campaign for Citizenship. In our discernment process we put out documents that laid out the risks, the logistics and then we had a congregational meeting where we presented a resolution basically answering “What are the criteria we should use? How does the congregation give responsibility to the board?” Because of the speed which these situations often need to resolved, we couldn’t convene a congregational meeting to make a decision on a particular request for sanctuary, so we needed to empower the board.

Within our governance model, offering sanctuary is considered a ministry of the church and therefore didn’t require a vote of the congregation. But it was important for us, for me and for the leadership of the congregation, to have the consent and commitment of the whole congregation - so we insisted on a congregational vote so that people got to have a voice in the decision. All the folks who came out to support the movement in that meeting were supporting not just this resolution, to become a sanctuary, but the whole ministry of the congregation. So we held the vote in November 2015, which is when we became a sanctuary congregation.

Rev. Schurr – It sounds like you made a really significant effort to communicate and engage the members of the congregation. Did this also help in avoiding the issues that we sometimes find when people think there hasn’t been enough consultation?

Rev. Anderson - Yes, it helps them to really feel like partners in this prophetic work. Because they are.

Rev. Schurr - Because of the work the congregation did to empower the board and to build systems, could the board of the congregation now make the decision to take in another sanctuary seeker if David’s case were to be resolved?

Rev. Anderson – The board could do that now, and they take responsibility seriously I think. It was really heartening actually to see how seriously the board took this situation, and how much emotion there was around the board table. It was one of the first times in my experience of ministry with UUFNN, that a board member said “Let’s pray, before we vote.” So we had that moment of reflection, pause and prayerful decision-making, and it really coalesced in this beautiful moment that acknowledged all the work we did together as a board and as a community.

Rev. Schurr - If there’s a congregation that's curious about beginning a sanctuary program, what should they do?

Rev. Anderson – I think the first thing is to look to local partners, find your local PICO affiliate or chapter, churches of other denominations doing this work too. Networks are critical. Then create a small group, whether that’s a committee or a task force or whatever, in order to prepare to educate the congregation. That group of people would go to the UUSC, UUCSJ and UURISE to gather information, and also reach out to congregations like FUSD in Denver or to us in Reno for support.

Then they need to figure out what kind of process would work for them - do they want a series of congregational meetings, one meeting, two meetings, then a resolution and vote? What would the resolution look like? Who do they empower to make the decisions? Every congregation’s circumstances will be a little different.

Rev. Schurr – What’s your impression of how UUs are responding to the call for sanctuary?

Rev. Anderson - Over the last couple of months, there are a number of other UU congregations who have made this declaration or are working on it. The movement is growing. As we continue this work of resistance, we build power by doing this together. It’s important to also understand that sanctuary is just one part of a larger movement to change a broken immigration system. Yes, in many situations it will help an individual, or a family, but it’s greater purpose is to change the hearts and minds of the general public to ensure that we don’t have to offer sanctuary in the future but will instead have a just and moral immigration system.

About the Author

Sarah Movius Schurr

The Rev. Sarah Movius Schurr joined the PWR team in 2016. She serves as primary contact for all congregations in the states of Washington, Montana, and Wyoming. In addition to her primary contact work, Sarah is the PWR specialist for small congregation concerns.


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