South Congregational Church, Springfield, Mass.

When government threatens sanctuaries

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?


  1. I am not aware of any US laws that support churches offering sanctuary. I definitely do not support it.

  2. Sanctuary for law breakers? Give us a break!! Maybe some pedophile priests will also seek sanctuary. Maybe they have already!!

  3. As a matter of law, unsanctioned sanctuaries threaten governments.

    Both international and federal law provide for asylum, which has roots in ancient civilizations including Greece, Rome, and Egypt.

    The notion of “sanctuary”, however, is Judeo-Christian, specifically that persons fleeing the law could go to places of worship and be protected. In the Old Testament, God commanded Moses to set aside cities and places of refuge in Canaan where the persecuted could seek asylum.

    Law enforcement doesn’t need to look into safety and building code violations or engage in other work-arounds.

    Nor does status as a house of worship have any legal bearing.

    The sole and only reason that law enforcement doesn’t arrive, arrest Gisella Collazo and anyone who attempts to prevent that, is optics. It simply looks bad.

  4. It seems to me that deporting someone who is in the process and has been trying to secure her legal status, AND since this person is also married to an American citizen, that should speed up the process, not slow it down, AND since she is the mother of American born children (don’t know if the husband is the father of said American born children, if he is that should also speed up her process) IS WRONG.

    She is no threat to national security. She is NOT flaunting the law, she is trying to abide by it.

  5. It looks bad because it is bad. Common sense says this woman should have no problem getting citizenship. Were it not for the “disruptors” in Washington she likely would.

  6. “It is bad” is a matter of opinion and/or taste.

    Common sense cannot be the basis of a legal decision.

    Courts apply laws to facts duly ascertained. That keeps us a nation of laws, not men.

    The Romans had a legal maxim “Hard cases make bad law”.

    I have zero problems with churches and individuals acting in conscience as described.

    However, I also have zero problems with the legitimate authority enforcing the laws, even if it means arresting everyone in their way at that particular location, charging them, and prosecuting them.

  7. Bob, Rational, and Jim: So it’s all about law and order. Without the rule of law our civilization will collapse, and it’s all this woman’s fault. (No one’s talking about the guy in the White House and the swamp creatures he has brought with him.) Of course sanctuary cities are not in our country’s legal codes; this movement is about civil disobedience. When laws need to be changed and those elected to do the work don’t, one response is to turn to civil disobedience. Those who take this means do so with the understanding that they may have to pay a price, but they do it anyway for justice sake. When enough people become conscious of the legal injustice of current immigration practice, they will vote out those who refuse to correct the problem. Sanctuary cities and stories like this one help to move the process along.

  8. The article is scarce on facts, so we can’t conclude “it’s all this woman’s fault”. Her situation may or may not be something that she herself created.

    Civil disobedience is simply law-breaking. Giving it a fancier name doesn’t raise its stature. Generally it involves deciding on your own that a particular law rubs your fur the wrong way, fancying that conclusion up with words like “fairness”, “justice”, “peace”, or the like and engaging in some law-breaking.

    When one wishes laws to be changed (“need to be changed” is the presumption of the lawbreaker) we have a legislative process at local, state, and federal levels.

    If enough people don’t agree with your particular version of “justice sake” and “need to be changed”, you and everyone involved in the process wind up in the pokey for x amount of years. If your law-breaking involved a loss of life, you may wind up losing yours.

    Sanctuary cities and stories like this one describe lawbreakers who have invented, discovered, or concocted justification for breaking the law.

  9. “IS WRONG” is a matter of opinion and/or taste.

    At the moment she is flaunting the law.

  10. “Of course sanctuary cities are not in our country’s legal codes”

    DEAD WRONG THERE. Sanctuary cities exist because of our Federal Laws.

    Immigration and Naturalization Law states there is no duty to enforce immigration laws except to Federal Agents responsible for it and those who the Federal government gives authority to do so to help them (voluntarily). ICE has specific due process rules it must follow to ensure cooperation by local law enforcement to detain people. The problem they are facing now is they are far too lazy to follow their own rules. They want to play fast and loose with their own rules, so they attack others who maintain a greater level of integrity with their own rule of law.

    Immigration law has little to no due process for those in the system. So it is easy to government officials to abuse and use to attack people in an undue manner.

    Cities choose to become sanctuaries because fear of ICE scrutiny makes people unlikely to report crimes in immigrant communities. It hobbles local law enforcement’s ability to do its job. Lets also be honest here,criminal law enforcement is far more important than civil immigration law enforcement in the scheme of things. If it did not work towards fighting crime, you wouldn’t see sanctuary cities.

    The entire argument against sanctuary cities is based on either
    ignorance of rule of law and due process or outright contempt for it.

  11. How to completely frig up a discussion:

    A: Of course sanctuary cities are not in our country’s legal codes.

    B: DEAD WRONG THERE. Sanctuary cities exist because of our Federal Laws.

    Note that “Sanctuary cities exist because of our Federal Laws” does NOT contradict “Of course sanctuary cities are not in our country’s legal codes.”

    Basically B is saying that you can’t violate a law unless it exists and you wouldn’t unless you disagreed with the law.

    More interesting is “The entire argument against sanctuary cities is based on either ignorance of rule of law and due process or outright contempt for it.” in support of VIOLATING the law.

  12. Give it up Bob you have gotten boring and irrelevant as all Trolls do.,

  13. Give it up, Susan, you’ve long been boring and irrelevant as anti-religionists always are.

  14. Rev. Tom Gertenlauer, Senior Paster of South Church, where the family is living said: “But bullying is bullying. To have that shouted in our town. This is real America nowadays. And that’s frightening. It’s frightening.”

    It’s Trump style. Ugliness spreads. I wonder of Mayor Sarno voted for Trump – they seem to have that same bullying personality.

  15. Nope. There is nothing in the Word requiring the faithful to disobey the law; rather, there are admonishments in the Scriptures to “obey the rulers appointed over you”. We are instructed to embrace those who sojourn among us; those who have our blessing to enter into our land, and to abide by our laws. These “ministers” ahve abandoned their role as shepherds, and donned the mantle of politicians.

  16. This entire movement is an abuse of the concept of sanctuary. Sanctuary was always a political thing. Persons on the run from royal authority would claim sanctuary. These were other royal persons, and the issue would usually be something about supporting one king over another. Ordinary lawbreakers would never be able to seek sanctuary, and sanctuary was often violated. There were plenty of cases in which people would seek sanctuary, and those pursuing them would simply ignore it, enter the church, and kill the miscreant right there.

  17. If this happened in our church, a bunch of people would leave, and I would call ICE.

  18. The question I have about this is, how far does the concept of “sanctuary” go? What sorts of people are churches willing to grant “sanctuary” and which aren’t?  

    If a serial killer on the run wanted sanctuary in a church, would it be granted? I assume not. But it was granted in this case. On what objective grounds are such decisions made? Are they based on whim? Or on personal politics? If either is the case — and if sanctuary grants are mercurial after all — on what grounds can anyone claim that the notion of “sanctuary” carries any kind of legal, not to mention moral, weight?  

    I’m not in favor of deporting people by the million, but I’m also not in favor of clergy using a medieval principle that had been promoted in the Middle Ages by the monks of Cluny — in an effort to reform the medieval Church and try to shift it out of, if not above, the politics of the time — in order to press their own personal agendas under the claimed aegis of “law.”* The principle of ecclesiastical sanctuary is something whose time has come and gone. It needs to be put to rest. Let it die — and let’s stop granting clergy what amounts to a “veto” of law enforcement and the justice system.  

    * In the US at least, there is no legal right of ecclesiastical sanctuary. (I’d provide links to articles explaining this, but RNS might block my comment. Suffice it to say, it’s easy to discover the truth on your own.) Clergy who claim there is such a thing, misrepresent themselves.  

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