Churches champion immigrants' plight

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Churches champion immigrants' plight

Congregants offer support, money

By Maria Sacchetti
Boston Globe / July 4, 2008

At Sunday services and spaghetti suppers, churches and other religious groups across Massachusetts are fueling a growing movement to defend immigrants' rights, from raising money for detainees to lobbying lawmakers to overhaul immigration laws.

Somechurches in mostly white, affluent towns such as Andover and Chelmsford are inviting immigrants to share their stories in hopes that residents will rally to their cause. At least one, the Arlington Street Church in Boston, is taking a stronger stand by signing onto a national movement to aggressively defend immigrants' rights through protests and other activities.

Religious leaders and their flocks are delving into the contentious national debate as the country grapples with what to do about its estimated 12 million people in this country illegally. Church leaders say they hope their faith-based outreach will counter increasing hostility toward immigrants.

"We really looked at who was the most vulnerable in US society right now. It really is the immigrant community," said Susan Leslie, a national staff person at the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association, which has 1,050 churches nationwideand which supports the national movement to defend immigrants' rights. "How as people of faith could we not stand with immigrants? Isn't that what religion is all about?"

The religious activism is not as radical as the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when churches defied federal law and protected illegal immigrants facing deportation to war-ravaged nations. Instead, the new movement is more strategic and tailored to each church's needs, from parishes filled with immigrants to churches of mostly white members who simply want to help.

In the weeks after the March 2007 federal raid on a factory in New Bedford, the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish at St. James Church in New Bedford sprang up as the nerve center for detainees and their frantic relatives, providing access to lawyers, social services, and food.

Last year, a religious coalition launched a nationwide "New Sanctuary Movement,"pledging to take a public stand for immigrant rights and protect immigrants from "unjust deportation." The Unitarian Universalist Association supports it, though only a dozen churches nationally, including the congregants at Arlington Street Church, have voted to take the strongest action to defend immigrants.


Other churches are taking more aggressive action, or considering it. The Arlington Street Church in Boston voted in January to join the New Sanctuary Movement, and now they are planning protests at detention centers and setting up a rapid-response network to help immigrants in case of a federal raid. In March, it hosted a workshop that raised more than $2,000 to help a few Guatemalan immigrants fight deportation.

"If there's a big raid somewhere, we will respond to it," said Peter Lowber, who chairs the sanctuary group at the church. "We know that laws are often unjust."

Others are turning to immigrants themselves to build alliances they can tap to write letters to Congress, stage protests, and visit lawmakers on Beacon Hill.

Since January, the Merrimack Valley Project has invited immigrants to share their stories in settings large and small, from one-on-one conversations to speeches before entire congregations.

In more than 20 forums involving more than 500 people, immigrants from Laos, Guatemala, and Brazil described the hardship of coming to a new land to mostly white church members in Andover, Chelmsford, Westford, North Andover, and other towns. The immigrants, who reside in cities like Lawrence and Lowell, recounted long separations from their families back home, spending months in a federal detention center, and the harrowing journey across the desert to enter the United States illegally.

"You get a sense of how strong their faith is," said the Rev. Sharon Jones, pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, who invited immigrants this spring to visit her mostly Anglo church in a woodsy neighborhood on narrow country roads. "It makes me wonder whether my faith would stand up against that kind of difficulty."

The effort hit a high in May, when more than 300 people - including Ciesluk - gathered at the Christ United Methodist Church in Lawrence to hear immigrants' stories and sign letters to the governor and their state representative calling for changes and increased legal aid to immigrants.

Janice Prime, a hospital administrator who lives in Chelmsford, said she was sympathetic to immigrants, but hadn't gotten involved until immigrants visited her church.

"Before I really met some of them, I didn't think about it much," she said. "But when I heard the people speak that Sunday, it really touched me."

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