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Kentucky church reaffirms its status as sanctuary parish
Driven by concerns over the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies, a Catholic church in Kentucky with a history of welcoming refugees has reaffirmed its status as a sanctuary parish.
“We’re not doing anything subversive or dangerous here. We’re basically doing the work of Jesus in terms of welcoming the person at our door,” said David Horvath, a parishioner of St. William Church in Louisville.
Horvath helped to write a declaration that a group of St. William parishioners and local faith leaders from other denominations read together outside the parish church on Oct. 8. The public statement declared St. William’s “long-standing commitment as a sanctuary parish.”
“It just seemed like it’s important to come out and say, ‘Hey, we are concerned about the poor. We are concerned about immigrants.’ A lot of our public policy is not only scattered, it’s just wrong,'” said Father John Burke, the pastor of St. William Church.
Father Burke and parishioners told Our Sunday Visitor that the sanctuary declaration does not mean St. William will be providing housing to undocumented migrants who are fleeing from immigration enforcement authorities. In the 1980s, the parish provided shelter to refugees who fled the civil wars in Central America, but a residence that was used for housing at the time has since been converted into a youth retreat center.
Instead, the declaration is intended to be a public witness of St. William’s commitment to caring for migrants, in accordance with Catholic social teaching, as well to reaffirm its work in partnering with other organizations that provide legal and other direct services for immigrants.
“What sanctuary means for us today is a praxis of solidarity with movements for justice led by marginalized persons, especially immigrants,” said Andrew Porter, a St. William parishioner who also helped to write the declaration.
Besides a “couple of nasty comments on Facebook,” Porter told OSV that he and others involved with the declaration have not experienced any pushback, either from other parishioners or in the local community.
“Maybe, there have been some eye-rolling behind computer screens or television screens, although we haven’t experienced much of it yet,” Porter said. “The archdiocese released a statement that was largely supportive of our declaration.”
In a prepared statement released on Oct. 8, the same day the St. William parishioners held their press conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville said much of what the parish declared “corresponds to the priorities of our local Church and long-standing efforts by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
“Along with the bishops of the United States, I have long advocated for comprehensive immigration reform that protects families, provides a path to citizenship, and addresses the root causes of immigration while also respecting the right of nations to protect their borders,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
Noting that Catholics are celebrating Respect Life Month, Archbishop Kurtz called upon the 110 parishes in the Archdiocese of Louisville to “share the call of Catholic social teaching to respect the dignity of every human person, especially those vulnerable persons seeking a better life and fleeing violence and persecution.”
“While the Church respects the rights of sovereign nations to control their borders in the service of the common good of its citizens, these concerns are not an absolute right, and the capacity of rich and powerful nations like the United States to welcome refugees and immigrants also is a serious responsibility,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
New Sanctuary Movement
Father Burke and his parishioners told OSV that St. William’s sanctuary declaration is not only rooted in Catholic social teaching on migration but also the New Sanctuary Movement, a national network of faith communities that offers refuge and assistance to migrants.
“We’ve been working with a lot of organizations that work directly with immigrants,” Father Burke said.
At least 1,200 faith communities across the United States are affiliated with the New Sanctuary Movement, said Jennie Belle, a community organizer at the Church World Service, which helps organize sanctuaries for migrants.
“Since 2016, we’ve seen a much bigger explosion in the sanctuary movement,” Belle told OSV. “More people are taking sanctuary. More churches are opening up their doors. More groups are forming sanctuary networks.”
Belle said the New Sanctuary Movement began when deportations began to increase during President Barack Obama’s administration. She added that churches since that time have “stepped up to the plate,” opening their doors for migrants at risk of being deported.
If they have a valid warrant, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can arrest undocumented immigrants in any church or house of worship. However, on its website, ICE says it generally avoids arresting people at “sensitive locations,” which include churches.
While Catholic social teaching emphasizes the right of people to flee persecution and to migrate in search of a better life, there is no single Catholic position on parishes offering sanctuary. Some bishops support the idea while others caution against it by noting that declaring sanctuary does not provide legal protections if federal authorities really want to arrest someone.
However, Father Burke argued that St. William’s affirmation of its sanctuary status echoes Pope Francis’ call for the Catholic faithful to be “on the forefront” of supporting migrants.
“Things are becoming harder and harder for immigrants, with families and children being separated,” Father Burke said. “So I think it’s pretty urgent for us to take a stand and say, ‘Hey this is not what we stand for and this is not what Jesus stood for.'”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.