Local Berkeley chapel offers place of sanctuary for immigrants

Jihoon Park/Staff

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On Wednesday, University Lutheran Chapel held a press conference and ritual blessing to inaugurate a new apartment for immigrants facing a deportation order and seeking sanctuary.

The apartment consists of a room with a bath and will be large enough for one or two people. The chapel opened applications Wednesday to consider candidates for the room, and it is currently undecided on when its resident will be chosen and move in.

Other churches and religious congregations in the Berkeley area, such as St. John’s Presbyterian, support providing sanctuary and stand in solidarity with the chapel, but the chapel is the first to provide a place of residence. The chapel hopes that by providing a place of sanctuary, the government will give the residents facing deportation another hearing or a longer time frame as a sign of respect for a place of religion.

“There’s the whole climate of escalating violence in Central America and the inability of our government at the highest levels to affect any real meaningful change to our immigration system,” said chapel Pastor Jeff Johnson. “Those two things together made this an important step.”

The chapel’s role in supporting immigrants facing deportation began in the 1980s with the sanctuary movement and waves of immigration brought upon by the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and civil wars in Central American countries. Six months ago, the chapel reaffirmed its sanctuary declaration and made preparations for a place of residency in light of increased troubles in immigration.

On June 28, the city of Berkeley backed the chapel’s decision unanimously in an action proposed by City Councilmember Kriss Worthington. The action calls for the city to stand in solidarity with refugees and migrants and organizations that provide places of sanctuary.

“We don’t want Berkeley police officers or city staff to help the federal government crack down on (the chapel’s) compassionate and courageous actions or sanctuary,” Worthington said.

The room, which was originally an office space, took four to five weeks to renovate. Most repairs, such as replacing fixtures and cleaning, were minor and were funded through donations from the congregation.

The chapel has not yet decided on criteria for candidacy beyond having a deportation order and being in the final stages of the hearing process. Leaders of the chapel are currently working with national sanctuary movement leaders and the parish’s Rev. Deborah Lee to assess candidates and requirements.

The chapel is spreading its news through press conferences, Sunday meeting announcements and speaking with the East Bay Interfaith Immigration Coalition.

“I’m looking forward to meeting the person or the persons who will show up to enter sanctuary so that they might be less afraid of being deported and the violence that they’re fleeing from,” said Johnson.

Contact Lillian Dong at [email protected].