SPRINGFIELD – Citing Old Testament scripture that he said demonstrated a faith that “clearly favors welcome over rejection,” Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, formally announced on June 16 that South Congregational Church would act as physical sanctuary for undocumented immigrants facing deportation.
The church, located at the corners of Maple and High streets, will provide the physical shelter while five other congregations and religious organizations – Holy Cross, Blessed Sacrament, Unitarian Universalist Society, Holy Name and the Sisters of St. Joseph – and the Pioneer Valley Project will provide support.
“We’re in the process of organizing this not only at South Congregational Church, but also in cooperation with five other area churches or religious organizations. There’s a fairly well-defined plan, but we need to put all of the pieces together that will include accommodations within the building,” Gerstenlauer said. “It will include also providing food if needed, but the ability to make their own food. We’ll provide bedding if needed, but also the space in which they can make their own home, albeit on a temporary basis. The idea is not to provide a replacement for the homes they are now feeling unsafe in, but rather a safe place for a temporary period of time.”
The effort is in response to what Sister Melinda Pellerin of Sisters of St. Joseph called “the racist and unjust policies” implemented through executive orders signed by President Donald Trump she said have led to a 150 percent increase in “non-criminal arrests” of undocumented immigrants.
“The definition of who is a priority for deportation has been expanded well beyond those with violent criminal convictions,” she said. “This is part of what has been called a blueprint for mass deportation. This stands in contrast to our faith values.”
The Pioneer Valley Project estimates that Springfield is home to 5,000 to 6,000 undocumented immigrants.
Mayor Domenic Sarno, who has remained steadfast in his opposition to sanctuary for those who have entered the country illegally, has pushed back against the plan.
In response to a request for comment, the Mayor’s Office released a statement on June 19 announcing Sarno has charged “the appropriate city departments to review the situation to determine what recourse the city has to protect its interests.”
The Mayor’s Office cited potential building, housing, fire, public safety, health and sanitary code violations stemming from the use of the church as a shelter and and added the city “will not stand for the harboring and protecting of illegal and/or criminal activities” at the church.
The statement continued, “This is a change of use for a building not designed to be safely occupied as a housing shelter. Again, these individuals have been determined for one illegal and/or criminal reason to face deportation. No one is against legal immigration aspects, especially those who have played by the rules. He further adds that there are a number of individuals and families who have followed proper legal course to obtain empowerment program help and citizenship that are patiently waiting for their opportunity.”
Speaking with reporters after his announcement, Gerstenlauer said he had not spoken to the mayor, but he would welcome the opportunity.
He also stressed the sanctuary effort is not politically motivated, but based on religious and ethical grounds and the church would “provide extravagant hospitality” to those who feel threatened or oppressed.
“The history of sanctuary as a movement in the United States and, indeed, in the world … extends way beyond the founding of Springfield, Massachusetts,” he said. “We feel comfortable as a faith community in our faith tradition that this expresses our sense of values for community. That’s where we’re coming from. This is an expression of our core values. It’s not a statement against anything; in fact it’s more a statement for those who feel they are oppressed, those who feel that they are under threat.”
He also noted that the effort to provide sanctuary was one that was supported throughout the Pioneer Valley beyond the six current organizations and others may join the movement.
“This has been several months in the making. There are certainly others interested in one level of support or another,” he said. “We believe we have enough right now to proceed with establishing this kind of a presence in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. Beyond that, it remains to be seen how much more and what type of influence and interest would be expressed.”
Gerstenlauer and Tara Parrish of the Pioneer Valley Project also stated there would be a process for determining whether a person or family would qualify for sanctuary.
“The approach is going to be one of welcome and hospitality. That doesn’t mean that everyone that comes to the door will qualify for sanctuary, for habitation, if you will,” Gerstenlauer said. “Some of that goes into the legal and political realm and what I’m representing here is the faith-based community realm.”
Parrish added, “There will be a formal process, which will include legal expertise and other members of the network of congregations that will assess whether it is a good fit.”