SF Mission Church Offers Sanctuary to Undocumented Community

Crowd blesses St. John's Church. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

The Mission’s Episcopal Church of St. John’s the Evangelist on Wednesday joined a number of churches in the San Francisco area and beyond in vowing to protect their immigrant community from deportation.

“We’ve given sanctuary to many over the years,” said father Richard Smith, St. John’s vicar, to a group of some 50 community members gathered in front of two red doors marking the entrance of the church at 15th and Julian streets.

St. John’s served as a safe haven to members of the gay community during the AIDS epidemic and currently offers temporary shelter to the homeless seeking a reprieve from the streets.

On Wednesday, church members reaffirmed their dedication to shielding immigrants from deportation and assisting them in accessing vital resources. That practice has a long history at St. John’s – In the 80s, refugees fleeing the war in El Salvador found protection from immigration and law enforcement officials within its walls. It was during this time that parishioners decided to paint its doors red, signifying its status as a sanctuary church.

“We painted the doors red as an indicator – should any of our families…face deportation, we would stand in the way to prevent it,” said Smith.

The church renewed its commitment in light of threats of arrest and deportation made against immigrants across the nation by President Donald Trump’s administration.

The announcement coincided with the commencement of lent  – a religious period to return to “the values we hold most dear, most important,” said Smith.

Earlier, leaders of the faith community and supporters of immigrant rights had met at the 16th and Mission BART plaza to hold a ceremony in observance of Ash Wednesday.

About a dozen faith leaders held papers labeled with what they saw as the world’s collective sins – “Deportation,” “Islamophobia,” “Segregation” and “Homophobia,” among others.  One by one, they burned them over a candle set up on the plaza.

People tore and burned words of hate. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

The group then marched down Mission Street and through Clarion Alley before ending the procession at St. John’s. Onlookers joined in for parts of the march, such as 21-year-old Luis Medina, who immigrated from Mexico two years ago.  

“We have a big problem, but the solution is not deportations – the problem needs love,” said Medina, adding that he was “happy” to witness the show of support from community members.

“Sometimes I feel alone, but seeing these people here, I know that we are together,” he said.

The ceremony was meant to symbolize repentance, while the march denounced Trump’s anti-immigration agenda and made public the group’s intentions to open the doors of their churches to those subjected to hate and racism.

“Today we gather here in public as a sign of public repentance and our denunciation of these words and actions that separate stigmatize and divide,” said Reverend Deborah Lee, of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity.

Father Richard Smith leads a march down Mission Street. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

The faith leaders declared their commitment to supporting their immigrant members – both documented and undocumented – by offering them sanctuary from immigration officials as well as assistance with their most basic needs.

Hailing from Germany, Maria Eitz, the first female Catholic priest ordained in San Francisco, said that she had come to stand with immigrants.

“I am an immigrant,” said Eitz, who arrived in the United States in 1963. Before immigrating, Eitz said that she worked “behind the iron curtain” in Berlin to help smuggle children from East to West Germany.

The U.S.’s current administration, said Eitz, is a frightening reminder of that time.

“I grew up under Hitler and I know that what is happening now is following exactly those steps – I feel it in my bones,” she said. Presiding over the San Francisco Sophia in Trinity community, Eitz said she is not only offering sanctuary to immigrants but supporting them in finding housing.

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Craig Wong, a member of the pastoral staff at the Mission’s Grace Fellowship Community Church, said that his church has long drawn members of the Asian and Latino communities. It is these parishioners and their families that his church is now vowing to advocate for.

“Navigating housing, the school system here, getting jobs – there are many obstacles here for these communities,” said Wong.

During the ceremony, caseworkers from CARECEN, a Latino resource and social justice center, shared moving testimonies of young immigrant men currently under threat of deportation.

Most of the organization’s clients had fled poverty and violence, said Metzi Henriquez, a mental health specialist with the organization and herself a child refugee.

Henriquez told the story of an 18-year-old client who found out that he was undocumented after a recent arrest. The young father, who speaks limited Spanish, is now facing deportation to Mexico, where he has no known family members.

“I do not work with criminals,” said Hernandez. “I work with people who made simple mistakes, with refugees, with hardworking people who risked their lives to journey to this country.”

At St. John’s, the staff is currently supporting three of CARECEN’s clients – two men and one woman, all refugees from Central America.

“We meet with them and their caseworkers regularly and provide all the support that we can in the form of little things such as getting them BART cards to clothing, housing and of course lots and lots of prayers,” said Diana McDonnell, a lay leader at St. John’s,  adding that if push comes to shove, the church is prepared to go a step further by thwarting immigration officials’ efforts.

“If the Trump administration decides to deport any of our brothers and sisters, we are committed to standing in the way and stopping that from happening,” she said.

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One Comment

  1. Barbara Wagner

    I ask my church to support obedience of the laws of the land. Supporting migrants and refugees is fine as long as they are LEGAL. I’m ashamed that the Church would endorsed anything else.

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