On the Front Lines of the New Sanctuary Movement

Growing up in a secular family, in the mostly secular community of Amherst, Massachusetts, my first associations with the word sanctuary had to do with plants and wildlife. It was not until I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, that I came to associate the word, and its Spanish cognate, sanctuario, with church. In Oaxaca it is common to pay a visit to a particular saint or virgin, who inhabits the church’s innermost sanctuary.

In recent months, the word has taken on new meaning for me. Like many of us, I feel I can no longer stand idly by while my government disrespects the rights of our immigrant friends and neighbors. In my community, and in others across the country, we are creating underground networks of mutual aid and support for undocumented immigrants.

No one with any human decency should need an explanation as to why it’s unacceptable to tear a loving father away from his wife and children.

We are the latest incarnation of the sanctuary movement which began in the ’80s, when millions fled genocide and persecution at the hands of US-backed regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. Denied asylum under US immigration policy, many found sanctuary in private homes and churches. The Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, was the first to declare itself a safe haven for Central American migrants.

Thirty year later, my understanding of sanctuary has come full circle; because today, here in my hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, a brave community member has sought sanctuary in the First Congregational Church.

I’m not going to go into the heartrending details of the case, which are sadly familiar. Lucio Perez spoke for himself at yesterday’s press conference which you can watch here.

And no one with any human decency should need an explanation as to why it’s unacceptable to tear a loving father away from his wife and children. You can help the Perez family by donating time or money to the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, the organization that has been working with the Perez’s and many other families who have not made their stories public.

Growing up in Amherst, I heard a lot of platitudes about diversity and inclusion, but this is one of few times I have seen us put our ideals into action. Today I am proud to be from Amherst and proud to be part of the new sanctuary movement in the US. This is just the beginning.

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