A Piece of Mike’s Mind… Socially Distanced
Without a doubt, direct communication is what I miss most in this quarantined world. I’m becoming adept at Zoom and other online communication platforms, but if I’m honest, there is an essential element missing from those interactions and I don’t much like them. Probably, this just shows my age.
I’m thinking about this because normally I would use the pulpit to share what I need to share with you right now.
First Unitarian Denver is a Sanctuary Church. Beginning in 2014, we have three times offered our building as a temporary home for immigrants facing deportation. Currently, Jeanette Vizguerra has been with us for over a year(!), and a lot has changed that you (the congregation) should be aware of.
Some history is in order. First Unitarian got involved in immigration justice in 2012. For about two years, the Immigration Justice Project held forums, brought in guest speakers, facilitated classes along with our ministerial interns, visited legislators, provided letter-writing opportunities for the church, worked with our Religious Exploration program for the kids, lobbied at the State Capitol, created Sunday worship and Wednesday Vespers services, hosted film and book discussion groups, attended monthly vigils at the Immigration Detention Center, and developed working relationships with the American Friends Service Committee, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, El Centro Humanitario, Denver Dreamers and more.
For all that time, offering sanctuary wasn’t even on our radar screen. In January 2014, because of the partnerships with the Immigrant Rights Coalition, they approached us. Would we take someone into sanctuary? Allow them to move into our building with their family? Offer them the protection of our church and our faith?
After some initial stumbles, we got an attorney to advise and represent us. We consulted with the city about zoning. We had long discussions about and with our insurance carrier. I cannot say enough about the group who worked and met, and held forums, answered questions, did the homework, and spent the time to process and listen to the people who had concerns. That June the congregation voted 74 percent in favor of being a sanctuary church. That August we kicked off the Metro-Denver Sanctuary Coalition (MDSC). And that October, Arturo Hernandez Garcia moved in.
For the next several years, we worked closely with the MDSC, American Friends Service Committee, Mountain View Friends Meeting, and other organizations. Arturo finally went home in July, 2015, and Jeanette moved in (the first time) in January 2017. That was the year Jeanette was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people and First Unitarian made national news.
Since that time and the current administration, the entire landscape of immigration and immigration activism has changed. Deportations have gone up, due process is minimal, ICE no longer communicates, and no one anywhere believes immigration reform has a chance of happening.
Most important for us locally, the American Friends Service Committee and Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition have decided that supporting Sanctuary is no longer a viable strategy. Both these organizations, along with the Mountain View Friends Meeting, have left MDSC.
The reality is that First Unitarian is now largely on its own, and the once strong and focused team that supported Sanctuary within First Unitarian (THANK YOU!) has lost enough members that there isn’t much coordination happening at the moment - beyond the wonderful people who continue to transport Jeanette’s children to school (when school is in…). All of this has left Jeanette feeling unsupported, even as she continues living at church.
In the coming months, we are going to need to rebuild an Immigration Justice Team that can coordinate Sanctuary support, and also communicate with the congregation about current needs and partnerships.
That hasn’t happened yet, and COVID 19 has made everything harder on everyone, including Jeanette. I apologize for having to write all this down instead of telling you face-to-face, but that’s where it’s at.
In the meantime, please refrain from sharing any stories or news you might hear about Jeanette. If you have further questions or would like to help out, give me a call. I’d be happy to fill in more details.