The day after Thanksgiving, while many families were still enjoying their holiday together, Samuel Oliver-Bruno went with his wife, son, and fellow church members to an appointment at the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USICS) office in Morrisviille.
Since Samuel, an undocumented immigrant, took sanctuary at CityWell United Methodist Church 11 months ago, he had been waiting for this opportunity to make the case for why he should be able to stay in the United States. After 22 years here, his family knows no other home. He hoped this appointment would be his first step toward a “deferred action” status that would allow him to return home and work legally.
Instead, plain clothes ICE officers tackled Samuel in the lobby and seized him for deportation. When Samuel’s church family realized the trap they had been lured into, they followed him to the parking lot, encircled the mini van ICE agents put him in, and began singing worship songs.
Families with their own children in tow insisted they were there to extend the religious sanctuary of their church building to this place of public witness. They refused to leave, maintaining their service of worship until local police had handcuffed 27 of them and carried them away. The last woman handcuffed fell to her knees and lay in front of the minivan. As the arresting officers carried her away, she sang, “We shall not, we shall not be moved.”
Since the Trump administration initiated its zero-tolerance policy, denying stays of removal to undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for decades, faith communities here and around the country have offered solidarity and support to people who face imminent deportation by welcoming them into religious sanctuary.
Seventeen months ago, the School for Conversion where I serve in Durham welcomed Pastor Jose Chicas, a 32-year resident of North Carolina who had been told by ICE that he had three months to return to El Salvador. As Pastor Jose shared his story, we learned of dozens of stories like his — many from people whose husbands and sons had already been deported.
Attack on religious liberty
The thuggish and deceptive capture of Samuel is not only an assault on him and his family. It is also an attack on the religious liberty of faith communities that offer sanctuary as an act of worship.
Members of CityWell had not rehearsed the tactics of civil disobedience; they knew what to do when their brother was assaulted because they have worshiped Jesus with him for the past year. They remembered the call to welcome strangers because we, too, were once strangers in a foreign land. Their resistance was a public act of worship.
In an appeal to the conservative white evangelicals, President Trump has claimed to be a champion of religious liberty. Under his administration, the Department of Justice has established a “Religious Liberty Task Force” and spokesmen of the Religious Right have celebrated Trump as America’s “most evangelical-friendly President.”
But the religious liberty this administration trumpets is not freedom to practice the sanctuary we are learning in North Carolina. It is, instead, a license to use religion as a mask for the cruelty executed in the name of nationalism.
Throughout the Bible, political powers that oppress poor people and immigrants are described as wild beasts. The prophet Ezekiel calls them “ravenous wolves” (Ez 22) and Isaiah says their hooves trample like horses and they seize their prey like lions (Is 5). In Revelation 13, an unjust political regime is described as a beast that resurrects an earlier beast that had been mortally wounded. It’s a powerful image to consider in the Trump era, as nooses hang in trees during the Mississippi Senate run-off and immigrants face tear gas at our Southern border in scenes reminiscent of Bull Conner’s Birmingham.
We are, indeed, living in biblical times. But the sanctuary community’s witness is a reminder that, however vicious they may seem, wild beasts and political regimes are creatures. They are not God.
People who are formed by worship of the living God know they are free to follow God’s law no matter what secular authorities say. This is the religious liberty that led many of this nation’s original revolutionaries to rebel against King George, and it’s the faith that inspired abolitionists, women suffragists and civil rights workers to push us toward a more perfect union.
This is the faith of today’s sanctuary movement, which was attacked by ICE agents in Morrisville. The “War on Christmas” in 2018 is an assault led by President Trump and justified by his evangelical enablers.
If we want to follow the Christ child who came to bring peace on earth and goodwill toward all people, we must learn from the moral witnesses who sang, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” while officers carried them off to jail. If we are not free to offer sanctuary as God’s people, we are not free to follow the baby Jesus who was able to grow up and establish the church because he found refuge from King Herod’s violence in Egypt.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a Baptist minister in Durham, North Carolina, and author of “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion.”