Friday, January 2, 2009

We’ll leave the light on for you

Sanctuaries are amazing. At the heart of consecrated buildings, sanctuaries – no matter how grand or how small and unadorned – emanate a peculiar resonance.

On a thoroughly mundane level, acoustic theory acknowledges that sounds persist within structures long after the source of the sound is gone. The reverberation of thousands of prayers swirl through sanctuaries: pleas for intercession, songs of trust and gratitude, words wherein exile is overcome. Even our imperfect human hearing detects something special in these spaces.

On another level, sanctuaries hold the light of belief. Of God eternally present. Of Christ, quite literally, in residence.

Talk about resonance.

It is impossible to think about sanctuaries without thinking about the 1980s, when churches in the United States became not only spiritual but physical sanctuaries for people fleeing the undeclared wars in Central America.

U.S. policy of the day held that those were “friendly governments” therefore people seeking to escape into the United States could not be classed as refugees. The churches that opened their doors to those unofficial refugees did so outside the law.

Policies are temporal. The ways we classify other human beings at any given moment in history are temporal. Laws and walls and borders – all temporal. Intervening years have proven that those refugees were escaping unbelievably dangerous and repressive governments. That they should have qualified for refugee status. That the command to succor the stranger in our midst and treating him as brother is a law higher than those of the land.

Today there is also a sanctuary movement – one challenging us to look at immigration issues with an eye to this higher law. The interfaith initiative ( has as its goals to protect immigrant workers and families (especially those facing deportation); to change the public debate about immigration; and to make visible immigrant workers and families as children of God.

In Philadelphia, Peter Pedemonti is part of the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM). The 30-year-old works full-time providing hospitality at the House of Grace Catholic Worker house on Lehigh Avenue, but first heard about NSM when he was the director of education and outreach at an environmental organization in New York State.

“At that time the Sensenbrenner bill [H.R. 4437] was being debated. It made it a crime to help immigrants,” he said. “I remember being really outraged at what was happening in my country.”

Like so many of us, Pedemonti is the child of an immigrant. His father came to the United States when he was 13, after World War II, when dire economic conditions in Italy made starvation a real possibility.

Pedemonti sees a parallel with recent immigrants, many of whom emigrate because the economic conditions in their rural communities are calamitous.

“The impact of our economic policy is the part of the equation that is always left out of [the immigration debate],” he said. “A critical piece is NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement, implemented in 1994] which we pushed through. It has benefited our economy at the expense of the Mexican people. Today, 78 percent of the corn in Mexico is from the U.S.”

Still, it wasn’t economics, but faith, that drew Pedemonti to NSM.

“This is a faith-based movement,” he said. “We are here because of our beliefs. We can’t forget the basic call of the faith to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbor. It is a very clear call. It is not only how we must think, but how we must act…”

The NSM coalesced in 2007, with several economic justice alliances serving as its coordinating organizations. But local NSM efforts build through word of mouth, and through the work of the faith-centered individuals of many religious communities.

The group is heavily Catholic, according to Pedemonti and much of their educational outreach work – “Know your rights” workshops, forums discussing immigration with a religious or faith and morals perspective, and “Immigration 101” workshops – take place at parish centers and churches. They will, however, present the workshops for whoever is interested: community centers, schools, etc. (E-mail for more information.)

A “Know your rights” workshop is slated to take place at 7 p.m. on Jan. 14 at St. Vincent de Paul Church, on the corner of Price and Lena Streets in Philadelphia.

But much of the work Pedemonti and the NSM group does is hands-on, “walking with” the immigrants and their families.

They have worked with immigrants arrested in the 7/08 workplace raid in King of Prussia, providing food, clothing, money.

Pedemonti himself has been working with a Pakistani family with immigration troubles. F., the 40-year-old father of two was in detention in York, Pa., where most of the undocumented from Philadelphia are sent. F’s wife called Pedemonti soon after the arrest. Since then, Pedemonti has accompanied them to deportation hearings and court, or wherever he might be able to help.

When I first spoke to Pedemonti in early Dec., F. had just had a deportation hearing. The result was the withholding of his deportation/removal – a favorable outcome that will allow him to remain in the United States and to get working papers. F. will never be able to depart the country, nor will he be able to apply to become a lawful permanent resident. In some cases, a withholding of deportation/removal bars deportation to a specific country, but not deportation to countries unspecified in the order.

Several weeks later, via e-mail, Pedemonti said F. had just been released from detention. “It has been such a blessing to work with him and his family,” Pedemonti wrote, “and a real joy to speak with him knowing he is home with his family for Christmas. He had some incredible reflections to share about his time in detention, faith, and the trial.”

Nobody in the Philadelphia NSM has had to provide physical sanctuary yet, but one member knows exactly what it might mean: he was in sanctuary during the 1980s. Because seeking physical sanctuary is a public act for the undocumented immigrant and his or her family, it is not a step taken easily. But for some, it may be the only hope for keeping a family together.

It also requires that the whole congregation be in agreement about providing sanctuary. In Chicago and Los Angeles, the churches and religious centers that have done so have been the targets of picketing and some heated rhetoric.

Still, the full congregation of a synagogue in Manayunk has committed to providing physical sanctuary for an undocumented immigrant (or family) in the Philadelphia area if it ever becomes necessary to do so.

Which doesn’t mean that the synagogue, or any of the churches involved in the sanctuary movement, support illegal immigration. What they uphold is the dignity of our fellow human beings – the God-given right to keep a family together and to seek relief from inhumane conditions (be they economically or politically driven).

Some entertain angels. Others see the face of Christ in the least of their brothers. All of them know that a house doesn’t become a home - much less a sanctuary - until we leave a light on.

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