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Duluth church considers housing immigrants, would be region's first 'sanctuary'

The Rev. Kathy Nelson of Peace United Church of Christ talks about the idea of adding housing space, including converting this basement room, to the church for as many as four undocumented immigrants working toward becoming documented. The church’s congregation will vote on Sunday on whether to become a sanctuary church. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 2
A lawn sign bearing a Martin Luther King Jr. quotes sits in a garden in front of Peace United Church of Christ. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 2

DULUTH, Minn.—A Duluth congregation will decide on Sunday whether to become a sanctuary church, offering temporary living space to undocumented immigrants as they seek legal status.

It's believed Peace United Church of Christ would become the first church north of the Twin Cities to offer sanctuary, said the Rev. Kathy Nelson, the church's pastor.

JaNaé Bates, communications director for St. Paul-based Isaiah, a nonprofit that assists sanctuary churches, agreed with that. Peace Church would be the first north of the metropolitan area her organization has worked with, although some St. Cloud churches are looking into the idea, Bates said.

If the idea is approved in a congregational vote on Sunday, living quarters consisting of rooms with bunk beds, showers, a kitchen and laundry facilities would be provided through remodeling unused space, Nelson said. A cost estimate isn't complete, but it's hoped it could be less than $60,000 with church members doing some of the work themselves.

If necessary, though, the church could offer sanctuary immediately, she said.

It's not clear if having people live in the church temporarily would require a zoning exemption. Pakou Ly, spokeswoman for the city of Duluth, said the city would "wait and see" pending the church's vote.

The congregation has been exploring the idea of providing sanctuary for months, Nelson said. That was long before President Donald Trump's decision earlier this month to revoke Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protected young adults who arrived in the United States illegally as children from being deported.

But given the number of college students in the Duluth area, Peace Church could well find itself providing sanctuary for someone affected by the DACA decision, Nelson said.

The church anticipates help from other religious entities, which would be known as sanctuary-supporting congregations. People from outside of Peace Church attended a March 25 training meeting on the subject, Nelson said.

Among them were members of Temple Israel. Andrea Gelb, a retired social worker who is a member of the congregation, said the temple's board had expressed support but wouldn't take formal action until after Peace Church's vote.

How Temple Israel might offer support would depend on individual situations, Gelb said. But it could range from helping with transportation, food, clothing or medical needs to connecting an individual with an attorney or possibly staying at the church overnight so people feel safe.

Support within Peace Church seems to be strong, Nelson said, with 35 people already part of the church's sanctuary team.

Someone accepting sanctuary likely would be there all of the time until they completed that process, except perhaps when traveling to and from a courtroom, said Charlotte Frantz, a Peace Church member who has been active in the process.

Frantz said supporters of using churches as sanctuary spaces point to an October 2011 Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) memo stating its activities were not to be conducted in "sensitive places" — specifically schools, hospitals, places of worship and religious ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.

"What we're saying is that we are willing to use our status as a sensitive location to let somebody pursue their legal recourse, which is their right to do," said Frantz, who retired two years ago as pastor of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ.

But if a border patrol agent or police came to their place of sanctuary with a valid warrant, the church wouldn't interfere, Nelson said.

Both Frantz and Nelson said most of the questions that have been raised deal with the legality of offering sanctuary. But because the church would be open about what it's doing, it would not be considered illegal "harboring," Nelson said.

The same question arose at Macalester Plymouth United Church of Christ in St. Paul, which has been offering sanctuary since the end of January, said its lead minister, the Rev. Adam Blons.

"The kind of sanctuary that we are offering is not to hide somebody from ICE," Blons said. "Sanctuary as we understand it, and as we're prepared to offer it, is to use the church's protected status to buy some time for people who are working in a system that is backlogged and takes a lot of time so they can fight their deportation."

But the system is opaque and memos can be rescinded, Bates cautioned.

"For us, for people of faith, a lot of this is exactly that — it's a walk of faith," she said. "We are truly living out what we know we're called to do according to our sacred text about protecting those who are strangers in our land."

Nelson, Frantz and Blons also described offering sanctuary as a biblical mandate.

"It's a call of our faith in terms of the command to love your neighbor as yourself," Nelson said. "I think we're called to care for our neighbors and especially the foreigner in the land, to make sure they're taken care of."

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