An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants duck in and out of the shadows in the United States, a number whose magnitude can muddy the roiling national debate over immigration. Compared with such a massive number, what are one or two people?
For two pastors in Greater Boston, they are everything.
Aided by the Rev. Kathleen O’Keefe Reed in Cambridge and the Rev. Ray Hammond in Jamaica Plain, two fearful immigrants have found sanctuary from deportation in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s crackdown. Sheltering them is illegal and their constant care is daunting, but the pastors and a network of supporting congregations have pressed ahead. “We take a cue from many different Scriptures: You love your neighbors as yourself,” says Reed, who preaches at University Lutheran in Harvard Square.
In May, University Lutheran became the first church in the state in recent years to offer sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant, a 26-year-old woman from Ecuador, and her two small children. In September, Hammond’s congregation at Bethel AME began hosting a 33-year-old man from El Salvador. Across the country, about 30 churches have offered harbor to immigrants in similar circumstances.
“These are the friends, the neighbors, the colleagues that we see all the time,” Hammond says. “People get scapegoated and stereotyped for political purposes to distract all of us from the real problems.”
The Ecuadorean woman lives with her children, ages 1 and 3, in former Sunday school rooms at University Lutheran, which has operated a homeless shelter for 35 years. She was arrested in 2012 after crossing from Mexico and has been ordered to leave, despite having received what she said are death threats at home. The Salvadoran man, who also has a deportation order, has been in the United States since 2005 and does not want to be removed from his five children, all of whom either have permanent legal status here or are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was canceled in September but may be revived.
At University Lutheran, a sermon by Harvard Divinity School student Kristofer Rhude sparked discussion that led to a unanimous congregational vote to offer sanctuary. For Bethel AME, believed to be the first historically black congregation in the country to shelter an undocumented immigrant, the pews echoed with applause when Hammond made the announcement during a service.
The churches are breaking the law, but federal agents nationally have been reluctant to remove undocumented people from places of worship. Still, it takes more than a bed and a blanket to provide sanctuary for immigrants afraid to venture outside. Instead, a small army of volunteers provides for their needs. Three churches and three synagogues support Bethel AME. At University Lutheran, help comes from the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition, composed of eight Christian congregations, two Jewish ones, and supporters at Harvard Divinity School.
Janine Carreiro, codirector of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, which advocates for social justice, calls them “shining examples of what it means to be a person of faith in our time.”