Examining Macalester Plymouth Church’s sanctuary designation

On January 30, Macalester students, staff and faculty received an email from Cynthia Hendricks with a familiar subject line: “Message from President Rosenberg.” It was three days after Donald Trump signed the first travel ban attempting to prevent entry of citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen and the Macalester community was uneasy, to say the least.

“There will be no uncertainty about where we stand,” Rosenberg wrote, aligning himself and the college against Trump’s executive order. Rosenberg’s message continued to reinforce the firm stance of the college, with one paragraph sticking out: “We will work with Macalester Plymouth UCC, which has voted to become a sanctuary church. This means that in partnership with ISAIAH, an interfaith organizing body, they will help place and support those who invoke sanctuary while they battle legal matters pertaining to immigration and deportation.”

Although the mention of the church in Rosenberg’s letter may have seemed out of place, the college and Macalester Plymouth share many values. Macalester Plymouth prioritizes being “open and affirming,” accepting people of the LGBTQ+ community, standing for peace and justice and maintaining environmental sustainability efforts.

Now, the two organizations overlap in taking a stance on Trump’s actions, as the Macalester Plymouth congregation voted on January 29 to become a sanctuary church, with an 83 percent majority. Macalester Plymouth is joining a group of thirty other churches in Minnesota that have declared themselves either sanctuary or sanctuary-supporting churches. Sanctuary churches allow undocumented immigrants to live in their church while going through legal proceedings and fighting deportation, while sanctuary-supporting churches provide tangible help to the sanctuary church, such as food, clothing, health and legal support, and a sense of community.

Although the decision to become a sanctuary congregation may appear politically-motivated, many members of the church emphasized its basis in faith. “We felt that this was our next step in our faith. It is urgent and it can’t wait,” Margo Dickinson, the Macalester Anthropology Department Coordinator and a member of the Macalester Plymouth congregation, said.

Macalester College Chaplain and Macalester Plymouth congregation member Kelly Stone agreed. “As Christians, we’re called to welcome the stranger, and called to be a source of extravagant welcome in a world that sometimes struggles to be that,” she said.

The decision to become a sanctuary church requires significant preparation. “Many members of the church have been trained to know what to do if ICE shows up at the church,” Eily Marlow, Macalester’s Program Associate for Vocation and Reflection, said. “It really isn’t just about having the similar values—it’s also about showing up and knowing what to do in those really hard moments.”

Logistically, taking on the designation of “sanctuary” requires considering the congregation to consider how the congregation can support refugees and/or immigrants. The Macalester Plymouth church is preparing a space in their basement for a family to live in peace and safety. The walls of the main space are covered in a bright green mural, decorated with scenes of with children playing outside. A bedroom will be repainted, fitted with fire and carbon monoxide alarms, and the windows will be expanded into egress windows. A children’s choir room, once marked by instruments and music notes painted on the walls, will become a new living room.

In addition to taking on the logistical concerns of becoming a sanctuary, the congregation is also willing to take a very public stance on its decision. This is the paradox of sanctuary: it does not hide anyone from ICE, but places the church and undocumented immigrants in the spotlight.

“Part of the strategy of sanctuary is that it is a very public movement,” said Corinne Freedman Ellis, the Macalester Plymouth UCC Minister of Congregational Life. “An aspect of the church’s role is to speak out about being a sanctuary church and the resident in sanctuary is also public.”

Sanctuary is not a fancy legal term. Its use has been revived from the 1980s when many Central Americans sought refuge from civil conflicts. Although sanctuary was invoked for decades before, it was made official in the 2011 “sensitive spaces” memo which states that ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, should not take “enforcement actions” in spaces like churches, hospitals and schools.

“Even if the memo doesn’t hold,” Ellis said, “We count on the fact that it would be such bad optics to remove someone from a house of worship, where everyone is welcome, regardless of immigration status.”

Although Macalester Plymouth UCC is still preparing to ready itself for sanctuary, there is a question of how this can involve the Macalester students and community.

“The best thing students can do is be prepared to respond,” Stone said. “It’s the most critical thing, to be ready to step in and think about how you’ll be interacting with the world.”