When government threatens sanctuaries

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John Phelan

South Congregational Church, Springfield, Mass.

It’s been a month since South Congregational Church in Springfield, Mass., gave sanctuary to a Peruvian woman who was about to be deported. She’s still there, and the mayor, who threatened the church, has gotten his comeuppance.

A good news story? Well, up to a point. Let’s review the bidding.

Last year, South Church formed a coalition with three local Catholic parishes (Holy Cross, Holy Name, and Blessed Sacrament), the Springfield Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Unitarian-Universalist Society to embrace the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger by offering services to undocumented immigrants. Actual sanctuary would be provided by South Church because it had an apartment available on its premises.

Immediately, Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno told city departments to look into possible safety and  building code violations there.

Then, when the church took in Gisella Collazo and her two American-born children during Holy Week, Sarno went nuts. “They’re not a house of worship anymore, now,” he said, and sought to strip the church of its tax exemption.

“The mayor, in saying, ‘Well, if they’re housing illegal aliens or undocumented aliens they cease to be a church,’ is simply wrong,” Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, told New England Public Radio. “Spectacularly wrong.”

The son of Italian immigrants, Sarno seemed enraged at the very idea of offering sanctuary to someone who wants to stay in the country without authorization. “Being first generation, it’s simply not fair to all those immigrants, including my parents, who played by the rules and followed the legal immigration path into America,” he said.

Building inspectors found a few minor violations, which were quickly fixed. Meanwhile, the Springfield City Council passed a resolution recognizing that providing sanctuary was “an essential part” of South Church’s religious mission and ordering that “no member of the City of Springfield, including all employees or agents shall take any step, measure or act to interfere with, restrain, intimidate or prevent” South Church and its interfaith partners from carrying out that mission.

Rev. Tom Gertenlauer, the church’s senior pastor, hopes that Collazo, who is married to an American citizen, will have her immigration status altered by Christmas and be allowed to stay in the country where she has lived for 17 years.  “South Congregational and others are ready to stand with her until she no longer needs our hospitality,” he said in a phone interview this week.

But the episode has been very upsetting to his congregants.

“It’s not shock or surprise about the character of our mayor,” he said. “But bullying is bullying. To have that shouted in our town. This is real America nowadays. And that’s frightening. It’s frightening.”

Real America nowadays is the place where, in response to the city council’s slap-down, Sarno issued a statement declaring his “fiduciary responsibility not to jeopardize potentially millions of dollars of federal funding our city utilizes to continue to enhance all our citizens and business community, by becoming a sanctuary city.”

Real America nowadays is also the place where, last week, a federal appeals court accused the Trump Administration forsaking the constitutional “check against tyranny” by seeking to punish sanctuary cities by withholding federal funding without congressional sanction.

And real America nowadays is the place where support for South Church and its interfaith partners from the rest of Springfield’s religious community has been conspicuous for its reticence.

Why, in particular, has there been nary a peep out of  the leader of the city’s largest faith community, Roman Catholic Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski? Three of his parishes are helping to support Collazo and her family, to say nothing of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Sarno is likewise one of his parishioners, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.

Rozanski was given his current job three years ago by Pope Francis, whose papacy has been marked by nothing so much as concern for immigrants. Pentecost will be here in three weeks. What better way for Francis’ man in Springfield to celebrate the birth of Christianity than by publicly declaring his support for Gisella Collazo and the stance of South Church and the rest of the Springfield Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition?