Call to Be a Present Day Abolitionist


So often we think of Mexico and “the wall” when talking about immigration. Tragically, ICE operates without constraint within 100 miles of any border including the coast, imprisoning thousands without due process. We live in the borderlands and the call for sanctuary is sounding. How can we be a present day abolitionist?

As a kick off to our monthly theme of “Sanctuary,” I will share this Sunday what I learned about the Sanctuary movement when I spent time in Nogales Mexcio/Arizona and we will hear from two guest speakers. Dolores Thibault-Munoz, a lawyer and immigration activist will speak to the impact of ICE in Fitchburg and a worker from the Metrowest Worker Center / Casa del Trabajador / Casa do Trabalhador will share their personal story and provide context for what’s happening overall in Massachusetts communities. How is ICE impacting the lives of our neighbors, friends and family? How are we to live as abolitionists in the borderland, the 100 miles ICE operates from the coast? Following the service, get your coffee and join us for a Q and A and a video presentation in the front of the Sanctuary. See you soon.

The Sermon

The words of Jewish Scholar and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: Sanctuary is often something very small, not a grand gesture, but a small one toward preventing human suffering and humiliation. Sanctuary is a human being. Sanctuary is a dream. We are in truth each other’s shelter. Four years ago I traveled to Tucson and Nogales Mexico on a UU College of Social Justice borderland trip, where I learned from several people how we as human beings could be sanctuaries for each other. I learned from Shira. She helps to staff the tents 24/7 in the middle of the desert to help migrants making the 7-day journey to get beyond the 100-mile area of border control. On this morning Shira had helped a woman with one-month-old baby. Last week she help to bandage the blistering feet of a young man she knew to be a drug runner, for his shoulders were grooved with the marks from carrying a heavy pack. Some of her colleagues were angry she helped him. I’ll always remember her reply. She said to them. “For all I know this man was forced to carry that pack at gun point and if someday he finds himself in a place to help another migrant survive, maybe he will remember someone was kind to him. As long as there is kindness

Volunteers like Shira know the trails the migrants take and leave water at key locations. The blue are the water drops. The red marks are the places people have died as of 2011. Shira brings personal belongings that migrants have dropped to
this shrine to honor the courage of their passing.

John Fife showed me how we can be sanctuaries for each other too. He is the organizer of the 1980’s sanctuary movement in this country when 500 churches and seventeen cities declared themselves sanctuaries for hundreds of people threatened with deportation back to war torn Central America. John said back then they learned that the church is a vital base for organizing, the government can never figure out what do when entire congregations work together.

They also learned that sanctuary is not civil disobedience; it is the legal right and ethical responsibility of a civil society to protect those whose rights are violated by the government and that international law is a higher standard than national law. And though many things are different now, one thing is constant; the federal government is breaking international law by implementing a border enforcement policy resulting in thousands of deaths.

And I learned from Rosa. I met her on her 80th day of Sanctuary at the Tucson church where every day included with a prayer vigil, letter writing campaigns, press events, and marches, all to keep her case, her truth in the public view. What is compelling about Rosa is that she too is learning what it means to be a sanctuary. She said, “up until 4 years ago, my life was very normal, I volunteered at my kids schools, I attended their soccer games. Four years ago I was pulled over for hitting a cone while slowly weaving my way through road construction. I didn’t have an ID, so the police called Border Patrol. I was in detention for sixty days and the day I got bond was the day my struggle opened. I came to the church as sanctuary thinking I would tell ICE I don’t want to be deported. But it is so much more than that, I didn’t realize how many people would be around me, the media, the national recognition, it is heavy, but I am proud to carry on this struggle. God wants me here to be a great role model for my children, to create sanctuary for those that follow.” She stayed in in sanctuary at the church for 461 days, until finally Immigration and Custom Enforcement, or ICE agreed to let her stay until congress passes comprehensive immigration reform (in other words a very long time.) It too 10,000 Arizonians to sign a petition on her behalf for ICE to act.

These teachers taught me:

  • That sanctuary is providing for truth in the place of safety.
  • That sanctuary is someone living within a community that has loved and organized on their behalf.
  • That sanctuary is the legal right and ethical responsibility of civil society to protect the rights of those violated by their government.
  • That sanctuary has and can still change inhumane laws. John Fife’s movement was instrumental in changing asylum law.

And I’ve learned that Sanctuary is still a dream. We sat for an hour in the Tucson federal court room and watch migrants fresh from the desert, teenage boys, young women, and fathers with families to support, shackled with chains around their waist, wrist and feet, shuffle to the front to of the courtroom to be criminally charged sometimes 70 at one time. Isabel, a migrant legal advocate, and human rights award winner, says that this Federal program called “Operation Streamline” functions in 7 border towns, criminalizing on average 900 people a week.

Today, this sinister, toxic, death machine of injustice we call ICE is now assigned the task of removing undocumented immigrants from the country’s interior and it is approaching this mission with cold bureaucratic efficiency for the laws endow ICE with the technical authority to removed every one of the 11 million undocumented people living in this country, of whom 2/3 have lived here for a decade or longer.Just to give you a sense of realness here are some numbers since the beginning of this presidency.

  • In the first 8 months ICE increased arrests by 44 percent for the NE region and 50 percent in Boston.
  • The average number of detainees this year is expected to be 40,520 people nationally of whom only 14 percent have lawyers. In 1994, the average was 6,785.
  • The number of undocumented people transferred to ICE from local jails jumped 248 percent during the first four months because more police departments are cooperating with ICE, transporting people detained for traffic violations. There they are held without due process, or accountability for inhumane conditions, sometimes for over a year.

Sanctuary is the legal right and ethical responsibility of civil society to protect the rights of those violated by their government. One migrant said to me “I trust you all to do this.” He trusts us in some small or big way to stand in solidarity with the migrant, to break open the territories of our hearts, making new maps as we go. As people of faith we have promised to love our neighbor let us not break that promise, for we are in truth each other’s shelter. People of faith are mobilizing and showing up for our neighbors. Accompanying them to ICE appointments, and holding ICE accountable. Click on this link to learn how you can provide sanctuary and help to challenge the power of ICE to imprison and criminalize our neighbors. Together we can become present-day abolitionist.

Atlantic Magazine, August 2018