The United Church of Christ in Springfield, MA is under attack from Mayor Domenic Sarno after providing refuge for an immigrant mother and her two young children.
Sarno said Springfield is not a “sanctuary city” and he is looking to strip the church of its tax-exempt status for violating housing regulations. According to Sarno, housing someone in a church building violates building, housing and health codes.
“Legally, I am going to have it reviewed, and if they continue to do this, they could be under the specter of a taxable property,” Sarno said in an interview last week.
The mother, identified as Gisella, took shelter at United Church the day before she was legally obligated to return to her home country of Peru. Gisella married an American citizen in 2005 and her two children, ages 10 and 4, are American-born citizens.
Senior minister at United Church Tom Gerstenlauer said the decision to house Gisella was not based on political motives.
“Our faith calls upon us to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger among us,” Gerstenlaur said. “Our sense of vigilance is heightened during this most holy week on the Christian calendar. We must and we will persist in faith.”
Gerstenlaur said the church will allow Gisella and her children to live at the church until she receives her American citizenship. Director of the Pioneer Valley Project Tara Parrish told reporters preparations are already in place for the family of three.
“Our coalition has formed teams, so they have taken on different pieces of responsibility related to insuring care for the whole family and their needs,” Parrish said.
This is the second instance of a church in Massachusetts caring for an undocumented immigrant. The first case was the First Congregational Church in Amherst caring for Lucio Perez, who remains in the church’s care until he receives his citizenship.
Sarno is taking a strong stand against the two churches and is doing everything in his power to punish them.
“They enjoy non-taxable status as a house of worship,” Sarno said. “They are not a house of worship anymore.”
The mayor’s iron fist can be credited to President Trump’s statements desiring to punish sanctuary cities harboring undocumented immigrants. Sarno is an outlier among his fellow Massachusetts’ mayors, including the mayors of Boston, Worcester, Northampton and Holyoke, who have defied Trump’s threats. Boston Mayor Martin Welch even said he would use City Hall to house undocumented immigrants.
Springfield City Councilor Adam Gomez told the press many people in the state have begun referring to Sarno as “Mayor Trump.”
Whatever your stance on immigration is, this is a clear issue of separation between church and state. The church has the God-given responsibility and instruction to care for those who are need.
Just look at what the Bible says about immigrants:
Deuteronomy 10:18-19 –– “For the Lord your God… loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Hebrews 13:1-2 –– “…show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels…”
Leviticus 19:33-34 –– “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself…”
I don’t support undocumented immigrants living in our country, but the church is not harboring an illegal alien who has no desire to obtain legal citizenship. This mother is fighting to not be torn from her two young children. The church is helping her receive her citizenship.
Everyone has a story. Many of our ancestors came to the U.S. with hope for a better life than the one they had in their native land. It would be nice to say all our ancestors lived here legally from the time they got here, but that would be a gross lie.
The truth is, many of us may not even be in this country today if our ancestors lived under a government that sought to punish anyone who helped them before they were legal residents. And regardless of legal concerns, a church is a private entity with personal obligations.
If no one else is going to help these individuals, then it is the church’s duty to provide aid. Because if they don’t, then who will?