Try to imagine the church business meetings that made this happen. During the early 1800s, the network of churches and individuals helping those escaping slavery was known as the Underground Railroad. My congregation, Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., was “the Grand Central Depot of the Underground Railroad.” We give tours of the church basement where runaway slaves hid. The guides turn out the lights and tell visitors to “imagine hiding in the dark, hearing someone coming down those stairs, and praying they can’t hear your heart pound.”
As far as I know, none of our tour guides tell visitors to “imagine the church business meeting where they argued about whether to help these people,” but the business meeting is equally amazing and easier to imagine.
“Why can’t the church stay out of politics? This is a partisan issue. We want people from both sides of the aisle to feel welcome in our congregation. Some of our biggest givers aren’t going to like this.”
“How do we know the people we’re helping aren’t dangerous? They could harm somebody. What if one of our girls gets hurt? Who wants to be responsible for that?”
“What’s the vetting process? Normal vetting isn’t enough. We need extreme vetting.”
“Churches shouldn’t be breaking the law. Our ministers need to set a good example. If people want to change the situation, they can write letters to Congress. There’s another election in four years.”
“Don’t we have enough to do taking care of ourselves? We have a stove that needs repairing and a sidewalk that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. Why don’t we focus on those things?”
At some point in a long contentious meeting, someone pointed out that Jesus and many of his followers were executed by the government. The leaders of the first church were in and out of jail. The early Christians believed that God’s people have promised to do more than stay out of trouble.
The church business meeting where a congregation decides to take risks to help someone other than themselves is about as close as we get to proof of the existence of God.
Churches across the United States are having difficult conversations. Many are part of what they are calling the New Underground Railroad.
Recent executive orders on immigration and two Department of Homeland Security memos move past earlier guidelines to focus only on criminals for deportation, and instead put undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation for something as minor as a traffic ticket. We are being asked to ignore the fact that immigrants are statistically much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
The present administration’s ramping up deportations raises new questions, but the immigration system has not been compassionate or effective for a long time. We break families apart and penalize the kind of people we most need in our country. Since 1995 the United States has allowed 5,000 visas per year for unskilled workers — and a guest worker program of about 200,000. But for years this country has imported most of its agricultural workers, so 12 million people work in the shadows. Ninety percent of undocumented men are working, because our country needs their labor.
People who do not think of themselves as political, but take their faith seriously, feel compelled to do something. Churches are resisting the deportation of undocumented immigrants. They believe that the Jewish tradition compels us to practice hospitality to the foreigner. They recognize that the Gospels are clear about the Christian requirement to care for the outsider. Jesus warns those who pretend to follow, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”
The Sanctuary Movement includes more than 800 courageous congregations that have committed to protecting immigrants. They pledge to pray, educate, and give money. Churches have formed study groups that are looking for thoughtful, courageous ways to follow Christ’s instructions. Churches are preparing to use private homes as part of a modern-day underground railroad to move undocumented immigrant families to Canada.
Churches are having business meetings and God is showing up.