ICE’s war on Christ­mas

The Herald-Sun (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY JONATHAN WIL­SON-HARTGROVE Guest col­umn Jonathan Wil­son-Hartgrove is a Bap­tist min­is­ter in Durham and au­thor of “Re­con­struct­ing the Gospel: Find­ing Free­dom From Slave­holder Re­li­gion.”

The day after Thanks­giv­ing, while many fam­i­lies were still en­joy­ing their hol­i­day to­gether, Sa­muel Oliver-Bruno went with his wife, son, and fel­low church mem­bers to an ap­point­ment at the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cit­i­zen­ship Ser­vices (USICS) of­fice in Mor­risvi­ille.

Since Sa­muel, an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant, took sanc­tu­ary at Ci­tyWell United Methodist Church 11 months ago, he had been wait­ing for this op­por­tu­nity to make the case for why he should be able to stay in the United States. After 22 years here, his fam­ily knows no other home. He hoped this ap­point­ment would be his first step to­ward a “de­ferred ac­tion” sta­tus that would al­low him to re­turn home and work legally.

In­stead, plain clothes ICE of­fi­cers tack­led Sa­muel in the lobby and seized him for de­por­ta­tion. When Sa­muel’s church fam­ily re­al­ized the trap they had been lured into, they fol­lowed him to the park­ing lot, en­cir­cled the mini van ICE agents put him in, and be­gan singing wor­ship songs.

Fam­i­lies with their own chil­dren in tow in­sisted they were there to ex­tend the re­li­gious sanc­tu­ary of their church build­ing to this place of pub­lic wit- ness. They re­fused to leave, main­tain­ing their ser­vice of wor­ship un­til lo­cal po­lice had hand­cuffed 27 of them and car­ried them away.

Since the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ini­ti­ated its ze­ro­tol­er­ance pol­icy, deny­ing stays of re­moval to un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants who have been in the United States for decades, faith com­mu­ni­ties here and around the coun­try have of­fered sol­i­dar­ity and sup­port to peo­ple who face im­mi­nent de­por­ta­tion by wel­com­ing them into re­li­gious sanc­tu­ary.

Seven­teen months ago, the School for Con­ver­sion where I serve in Durham wel­comed Pas­tor Jose Chi­cas, a 32-year res­i­dent of North Carolina who had been told by ICE that he had three months to re­turn to El Sal­vador. As Pas­tor Jose shared his story, we learned of dozens of sto­ries like his — many from peo­ple whose hus­bands and sons had al­ready been de­ported.


The thug­gish and de­cep­tive cap­ture of Sa­muel is not only an as­sault on him and his fam­ily. It is also an at­tack on the re­li­gious lib­erty of faith com­mu­ni­ties that of­fer sanc­tu­ary as an act of wor­ship.

Mem­bers of Ci­tyWell had not re­hearsed the tac­tics of civil dis­obe­di­ence; they knew what to do when their brother was as­saulted be­cause they have wor­shiped Je­sus with him for the past year. They re­mem­bered the call to wel­come strangers be­cause we, too, were once strangers in a for­eign land. Their re­sis­tance was a pub­lic act of wor­ship.

In an ap­peal to the con­ser­va­tive white evan­gel­i­cals, Pres­i­dent Trump has claimed to be a cham­pion of re­li­gious lib­erty. Un­der his ad­min­is­tra­tion, the De­part­ment of Jus­tice has es­tab­lished a “Re­li­gious Lib­erty Task Force” and spokes­men of the Re­li­gious Right have cel­e­brated Trump as Amer­ica’s “most evan­gel­i­cal-friendly Pres­i­dent.”

But the re­li­gious lib­erty this ad­min­is­tra­tion trum­pets is not free­dom to prac­tice the sanc­tu­ary we are learn­ing in North Carolina. It is, in­stead, a li­cense to use re­li­gion as a mask for the cru­elty ex­e­cuted in the name of na­tion­al­ism.

Through­out the Bi­ble, po­lit­i­cal pow­ers that op­press poor peo­ple and im­mi­grants are de­scribed as wild beasts. The prophet Ezekiel calls them “rav­en­ous wolves” (Ez 22) and Isa­iah says their hooves tram­ple like horses and they seize their prey like li­ons (Is 5). In Rev­e­la­tion 13, an un­just po­lit­i­cal regime is de­scribed as a beast that res­ur­rects an ear­lier beast that had been mor­tally wounded. It’s a pow­er­ful im­age to con­sider in the Trump era, as nooses hang in trees dur­ing the Mis­sis­sippi Sen­ate run-off and im­mi­grants face tear gas at our South­ern bor­der in scenes rem­i­nis­cent of Bull Con­ner’s Birm­ing­ham.

We are, in­deed, liv­ing in bi­b­li­cal times. But the sanc­tu­ary com­mu­nity’s wit­ness is a re­minder that, how­ever vi­cious they may seem, wild beasts and po­lit­i­cal regimes are crea­tures. They are not God.

Peo­ple who are formed by wor­ship of the liv­ing God know they are free to fol­low God’s law no mat­ter what sec­u­lar au­thor­i­ties say. This is the re­li­gious lib­erty that led many of this na­tion’s orig­i­nal rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies to rebel against King Ge­orge, and it’s the faith that in­spired abo­li­tion­ists, women suf­frag­ists and civil rights work­ers to push us to­ward a more per­fect union.

This is the faith of to­day’s sanc­tu­ary move­ment, which was at­tacked by ICE agents in Mor­risville. The “War on Christ­mas” in 2018 is an as­sault led by Pres­i­dent Trump and jus­ti­fied by his evan­gel­i­cal en­ablers.

Jonathan Wil­sonHart­grove

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