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Bathing In The Baptistery: The History Of Sanctuary Churches

Magdalena Rivas found refuge in Old Cambridge Baptist Church after fleeing violence in El Salvador and arriving illegally in the U.S. Over 30 years later, she now has citizenship and revisited the chapel where she stayed.
Gabrielle Emanuel/WGBH

Inside University Lutheran Church in Cambridge, you’ll find a pipe organ and two long rows of pews. Soon, there will be something else too: a trundle bed.

This church is converting old Sunday school classrooms into living quarters as it gets ready to welcome undocumented immigrants.

In response to the Trump Administration’s aggressive stance on undocumented immigration, a diverse group of religious communities has responded by preparing to shelter people at risk of being deported.

As these congregations prepare for an unknown future, they are part of a sanctuary tradition that stretches back millennia.

The Current

Clearing crayons and church booklets out of cabinets, University Lutheran Church, or UniLu, is making space for pillows, blankets and towels.

A team of community members meets in University Lutheran Church as they get ready to host undocumented immigrants.
Gabrielle Emanuel/WGBH

They have partnered with nearby Christian and Jewish congregations as well as a student group to get everything ready. Their team meets weekly – if not more regularly – and attends trainings hosted by the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

Pastor Kari Jo Verhulst of UniLu says the motivation is simple: “Remember you were once the alien and the stranger, and God befriended you.”

Churches are in a particularly good position to resist the administration’s efforts because U.S. immigration officials have a policy of staying away from what they call “sensitive locations.” This effectively makes place like houses of worship, hospitals, and schools into sanctuaries.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement representative says this policy remains in effect under the new administration.

Pastor Verhulst hopes the policy continues. But, she says the church’s role in sheltering immigrants reminds her of another, older policy.  

The Ancient Past

Pulling out her bible, Verhulst flips to a passage in the Old Testament. She reads: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you.’”

In these cities, people were beyond the reach of law enforcement.

And it wasn’t just the Israelites who had a sanctuary space. In Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, and Ancient Greece, temples were reserved for a higher authority. State authorities couldn’t arrest or apprehend anyone.

“It’s a fairly natural progression for Christian churches to claim the same ability to protect fugitives,” says Karl Shoemaker, a history and law professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500.

He says: Early Christians didn’t want to look less pious than the pagans.  So, churches – like the famed Westminster Abbey – protected those accused of “even the most violent crimes – murder, rape, arson.”

Shoemaker says if a criminal in Medieval England could get to a church before the authorities got to them, they’d be safe – at least temporarily. While at the church, they could negotiate a pardon or prepare for exile.

This practice was extremely common. “I’ve seen some counties where as many as a third to a half of all felony cases would have been resolved through a sanctuary claim,” Shoemaker says.

But those seeking sanctuary weren’t always model tenants.

“Shopkeepers are complaining that bands of marauders are emerging from these sanctuaries, robbing shops, pillaging essentially in the middle of the city and, then, returning to this sanctuary where they have this protection,” explains Shoemaker.

So, in the 1620s, England abolished sanctuary laws. And the legal tradition wasn’t passed on to the American colonies.

“We don’t have any traditional, any expectation that fugitives have places they can run to and receive protection. That’s unique,” says Shoemaker. “For the previous recorded millennia, that was a widespread expectation.”

However, some American churches tried to keep the tradition going. Yet instead of sheltering criminals on the run, they often offer aid those fleeing war, subjugation or deportation.

The Not-So-Distant Past

Churches were key stations on the Underground Railroad. During the Vietnam War, some people avoided the draft by hiding out under vaulted ceilings. And in the 1980s, a network of churches helped people fleeing wars in Central America.

“These churches are certainly situating themselves within a very long, a 2,000-year-old tradition,” says Shoemaker of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s.

Just a few blocks from UniLu is the Old Cambridge Baptist Church (OCBC) with its red door and a “Black Lives Matter” sign outside. They’re contributing to UniLu’s current efforts, but – for them – this is nothing new.

In the early 1980s, the OCBC congregation spent a year debating and praying about whether to join the Sanctuary Movement. Jim Wallace, a member of the congregation, says they eventually decided they wanted to shelter people fleeing wars in Central America. People like Magdalena Rivas.

Old Cambridge Baptist Church sheltered Magdalena Rivas in 1984.
Gabrielle Emanuel/WGBH

“This was my house,” says Rivas walking into a small chapel near the front door. In 1984, Rivas escaped El Salvador’s bloody civil war and, arriving illegally in the U.S., she found refuge in the church.

Congregants took turns staying with her. Beneath big blue stained glass windows, they kept watch for immigration authorities.

For several weeks, Rivas remained at the church. She says the nights were long: She barely slept as memories of being tortured haunted her, and she thought about her children’s father who just been murdered.

“It’s very painful,” Rivas remembers.

Just down the hallway from her chapel was the baptistery. Without showers in the church, Rivas used to bathe in the baptism basin.

Walking toward the baptistery, more than 30 years later, Rivas’s eyes well up.

She says it was there – submerged in the water – that she felt the safest.

Eventually, Rivas received political asylum and U.S. citizenship. She now works as a childcare provider and several of her children have joined her in the U.S.

Her life is stable and full, yet Rivas says she still feels nervous – but also lucky. Lucky that there was a house of worship to shelter her and so many others through the ages.

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