Words of the Prophets

Ancient words – from hundreds or thousands of years ago – still echo and urge us on:

Let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (The prophet Amos)

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” (Henry David Thoreau)

Or the freedom song: “None of us are free when one of us is chained.”

This week I bore witness as a man prepared to be chained with a 21st century version of shackling. He received a tracking ankle bracelet, a modern, more cost-effective form of imprisonment.

I didn’t see the actual event. That took place behind closed doors in the downtown Hartford office of the GEO corporation. GEO is one of the largest for-profit prison corporations in the country.

It is privately held, so I don’t know how much money it made last year. I do know it made large contributions to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

The man who got a GEO ankle bracelet is named Lucio Perez. He received it courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly referred to as ICE. You can read the story on Friday’s Mass News Live internet feed: “Springfield father who entered the company illegally 18 years ago faces deportation.”

Last May I told you about a bond hearing I attended at the Federal Court House in Hartford. The young man in detention, whom I called Jorge, is an undocumented immigrant with a family, his own business, and a strong church community. He had been targeted by ICE and arrested for driving without a license.

I quoted our local monthly columnist Jay Fleitman, who wrote:

ICE is directed by federal law to detain and deport illegal immigrants in the case of aggravated felonies, which can include crimes ranging from murder, rape, and violent crimes to racketeering, fraud, bribery, perjury, smuggling of other undocumented immigrants, or reentry into the U.S. after prior deportation for a felony.

ICE activities, he wrote, have not been about an assault on the entire population of immigrants as claimed by the supporters of sanctuary cities.

Dr. Fleitman, and the countless others who have made those same claims, do not speak truth.

For decades the United States government was complicit in allowing people to enter the country without documentation. They came and went to work: planting and picking crops, waiting tables, clearing trash, mowing lawns, driving taxis, doing hard day labor wherever they could find it. They came and went to work washing dishes, taking care of white people’s children, cleaning hotel rooms and offices and homes. You can add to the list. They were (and still are) critical to our economy. They are human beings with the same inherent worth and dignity as you and I. They have families. Many of their children are American citizens.

For decades, enforcement of immigration laws was inconsistent and weak. Under the more recent Bush administration enforcement increased. It was stepped up even more during the Obama administration – perhaps because someone decided, naively and misguidedly – that getting tougher on immigration might be a way to build consensus with some Republicans.

I won’t put all the blame for this on President Obama. I am as guilty of hypocrisy as the men Thoreau talks about in his essay on Civil Disobedience, when he says: "I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico;- see if I would go"; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute."

Jorge, the man whose bond hearing I attended in May, is back at home in Springfield. His deportation case is pending.

This past Thursday I was, again, in Hartford at the Federal Courthouse wearing my stole and scolding myself for not owning a clerical collar. This was not a bond hearing. Lucio is at risk of deportation within the next month. He has a wife and four children and a business that supports them.   Lucio, like so many others, lives under a deportation order that has been repeatedly delayed by stays. He has been checking in with ICE on a regular basis for years.   Each time the stay has been extended.

Under the new administration, ICE began arresting and jailing people when they appeared for their ICE check-ins, then deporting them. These are not hardened criminals. These are good, hardworking people who have been following the rules.

Recently, very recently this entrapment process – arresting undocumented folks when they appear for their check-ins and putting them in jail prior to deportation – has been altered slightly, in order to save money.

Now, when someone checks in, ICE decides if they are an imminent flight risk. If not, they can be told to come back in a week, having purchased a plane ticket to their country of origin. This time, they are fitted with an ankle bracelet, so that ICE can track their whereabouts and movements. This saves the government the expense of incarceration, and the expense of purchasing the ticket for the deportation. It is “humane,” because it gives the person time to “settle things” here before leaving.

The only hope at this point is that perhaps the stay will again be extended.  

About twelve of us, clergy and non-clergy, volunteers and staff from the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, and a volunteer lawyer, accompanied Lucio to the Federal Court House for this second meeting. He had his ticket. He knew about the ankle bracelet. He knew that the likely outcome, four weeks or so from now, was a one-way trip to the country he left nearly twenty years ago.

We met outside the courthouse and introduced ourselves. Before entering we stood in a circle, and prayed – with translation for the non-Spanish speakers.   Up on the fifth floor, the lawyer checked in with a woman seated behind a glass window. We waited, talking softly. Lucio asked us all to stand, and to bow our heads.

This time Lucio prayed. He gave thanks to God for the gift of life. He gave thanks for those of us there, supporting him. He gave thanks for his family, for his trust in God’s goodness. Over and over he expressed his gratitude, his faith, his hope.  

Amen.

Silence.

Rabbi Justin David, from Congregation B’Nai Israel here in town, began to sing very softly. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”   The woman behind the glass window glanced up at us.

Lucio and the lawyer were admitted into the office. The official checked Lucio’s plane ticket and explained the next step. A few minutes later, we were off to the offices of GEO, a few blocks away, where Lucio would get his tracking bracelet.

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Tomorrow night, the Board and Council will hear a presentation about what congregations can do to support immigrants like Lucio and thousands of others.

Many people in this valley – at the Pioneer Valley Worker’s Center, the Center for New Americans, the International Language Institute, local offices of the American Friends Service Committee and the ACLU and others – have been providing support.

A few of us in this congregation have been going to meetings of an interfaith group that is collaborating with the Worker’s Center. Some are members of the Sanctuary in the Streets coalition.

There is a role in this struggle that only religious institutions can play.

Religious institutions – churches, societies, meetings, synagogues, mosques and temples – can offer physical sanctuary. Historically, they have done so in times of struggle for those seeking protection from injustice. Historically, government agents have respected the sanctity of their buildings and have not entered to remove the person or people under protection.

Should we become a sanctuary congregation? Should we get ready to offer sanctuary should someone at risk of deportation request it?

There are lots of good reasons not to.

ONE: It could be risky.

Offering sanctuary is an act of public witness. We would need to make public statements. We would be in the public eye. People who disagree with what we are doing might protest, or disrupt our services.

We’re in a new, surreal political environment. ICE under the Trump administration might not respect the sanctity of our building. Maybe they would enter our building by force. If we mounted protests, some of us might face arrest.

And our guest could have a legal case that drags on for a long time. Our commitment could be for a week, or it could be for more than a year.

TWO: It would be inconvenient, and it would cost money.

This is not a large building. We would need to set aside a dedicated space, most likely, because it would be most practical, our youth room. This would put out the youth and inconvenience our youth director, Adrian.

We would need to rig up some kind of a shower, probably in the women’s restroom.

We’d need to provide meals, and supplies, and arrange for visits, if possible, for the person’s family or friends. We’d need to provide in-house medical care if the person got sick. Maybe our insurance company wouldn’t like it and would raise our rates.

It would definitely put an extra burden on our staff – especially on Lisa our administrator and on Frank our custodian. We might even need to pay them a little extra for some extra time.

And it could cause disagreements and conflict – among us, between us and others in the community trying to help, between us and our guest.

It might turn out badly. We might come to know and love the person we house, and their family. We might be bereft if their case ended, finally, in deportation.

Have I talked you out of it?

Last spring, when I started learning about sanctuary, I was pretty sure that it was not a step for us. There are many other things we can do to show our support.

I am no longer persuaded by all these good reasons.

We are a religious community. We are not called to stand aside or apart. We are not called to avoid all risks or serve our convenience or spend all our money on ourselves.

Our guest would not need to take a shower on Sunday mornings between 9:00 and noon, or during youth group or the weekday AA meeting.

I have talked to Lisa, and to Adrian, and to Jessica, and to Annie. Our administrator and youth director and religious educator and leader for community engagement think it’s the right thing to do. I know our youth will agree. 

If we were to decide to offer sanctuary, we would not do it alone. We would work in collaboration with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, legal advisors and others. We would consult with congregations who have experience offering shelter.

We would prepare. When and if the actual need were to arise (and there are signs it will), when and if we were to welcome a guest, we would partner with others, getting help with meals and logistics and expenses.

In my brief encounter with Lucio Perez last Thursday, at the Workers Center and then at the Federal Courthouse, I received more from him than he received from me.

He is not seeking sanctuary.

But if we were to offer it for someone like him, I believe we would learn what Walter Brueggemann means when he says we, too, are in need. I believe we would learn and grow and deepen our understanding and compassion for our neighbors whose lives and families are being ripped apart, AND for one another.

We cannot do everything. We cannot march in every protest. We can’t storm the Franklin or Suffolk County jails. We probably can’t change hearts and minds that are closed and determined with our words or our tears.

I am no prophet. I sympathize with poor Jeremiah – “Truly I do not know how to speak!”

One of you told me a couple days ago that she had been thinking about last week’s service. She reminded me that last week I asked – For what am I responsible? To whom? And how much?

Truly I do not know how to speak.

The German pastor Martin Niemöller did. He wrote this in the late 1940s, as many of you know:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It is not up to me whether or not we prepare ourselves to give sanctuary. It will be up to the voting members of this congregation. If you are not a voting member, but you have been coming for a while and consider this your religious home, you can ask to sign the membership book. Talk to someone else from the Newcomer Connections Team.

A vote for sanctuary is not a decision to take lightly. The good reasons to say no are good reasons to say no. But if there seems to be enough initial support, we have a process for calling us all to meet, and to vote.

I am not an undocumented immigrant. No one is coming for me.

Will I speak? And how?