How St. Agnes church became the first Jesuit parish in America to declare itself a sanctuary
San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood wears its 1960s countercultural history as a badge of honor. Double-decker tour buses grind up and down Haight Street throughout the day, pointing out local landmarks: the former home of the members of the Grateful Dead, the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, the plethora of tie-dye clothing stores and smoke shops and the corner of Haight and Ashbury itself, now home to a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream store. In the 60s, the Haight was so cheap to live in that communal households of young people were everywhere. In 2017, rent in the Haight starts at $3,000 a month for a one bedroom. The purchase price of a condo starts at one million, and the neighborhood is home to many of the city’s tech elite. But at a neighborhood Jesuit parish on Masonic Street, the most vulnerable members of San Francisco’s population have become the center of attention.
St. Agnes Catholic Church was established in 1893. The current building dates to the 1950s, and its classic and elegant design fits in with the Haight’s famous Victorian houses and the lush landscape of nearby Golden Gate park. Its current pastor, Ray Allender, S.J., is a San Francisco native who grew up in the neighborhood. Like the city that surrounds it, St. Agnes prides itself on its inclusiveness; its website describes the parish as “Inclusive, Welcoming and Jesuit,” and Father Allender says that for years St. Agnes has been known as the “last chance Catholic church” in San Francisco. Many parishioners travel long distances for the music, hospitality and good homilies. The parish is home to a large number of graduates of Jesuit colleges and has been active in welcoming L.G.B.T. Catholics, who, Father Allender says, are leaders in the church community.
Mass at St. Agnes on a Sunday morning is packed. Young families dominate the congregation, as do younger adults, but grayer heads are present as well. The music is indeed impressive; in addition to the excellent cantors and choir, there is a full range of string instruments and woodwinds. The homily, this week by Kevin O’Brien, S.J., dean of the nearby Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, challenges people to rethink the notion of being “salt and light” to the world. Most of the people in the pews are white, though there are a few Asians and African-Americans. This makeup is reflective of the Haight’s demographics but also of San Francisco’s shifting population, which has seen an exodus of Latinos, who have been pushed out of the Mission District, and of African Americans, who have been forced out of the Fillmore District, by exploding rents.
Like the city that surrounds it, St. Agnes prides itself on its inclusiveness.
It is the city’s remaining Latino population that is the focus of St. Agnes’s work right now. On Jan. 19, the day before the presidential inauguration, St. Agnes became the United States’ first Jesuit parish to declare itself a sanctuary church. According to Natalie Terry, director of St. Agnes’s Ignatian Spiritual Life Center, the decision came after a period of discernment. Sister Laetitia Bordes, a St. Agnes parishioner, approached Ms. Terry and Father Allender after the election and shared her experiences working in the sanctuary movement of the 1980s.
Sister Bordes recalls that the process of declaring sanctuary in the 80s started with house meetings. “People invited a few friends to their homes to listen to the story of a refugee,” she says. Sister Bordes became involved in training people to hold those house meetings. “No one can deny another person's story, and this model proved excellent in opening the eyes and changing the hearts of people who had been ignorant about what was going on in Central America,” she reflects. Those who attended house meetings would be given cards “with possibilities for involvement,” whether that meant writing or visiting their congressional representative, housing a refugee or hosting another house meeting. Most churches that offered sanctuary in that era took votes, according to Bordes, and the house meeting model caught the attention of Archbishop John Quinn, who headed up the archdiocese of San Francisco at that time, and who wrote in a pastoral letter entitled “On Central America” that “[t]he moral principles of faith...call upon us to protect and shelter citizens of other nations who have been deprived of their homeland by the threat of violence or terror or war.”
The difference between the sanctuary movement of the ’80s and what is unfolding today, according to Sister Bordes, is that those arriving in California from Mexico and Central America are not considered refugees from recognized wars. “The wars today,” Sister Bordes says, “are drug wars, gang wars, poverty wars.” And yet, she argues, people are in just as much danger as they were during the military conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. She also says that people need a greater understanding of the roots of immigration in order to overcome the stereotyping of undocumented people as “illegals.”
After Sister Bordes approached the St. Agnes staff, Ms. Terry and Father Allender participated in a conference call hosted by the Ignatian Solidarity Network that involved representatives from all 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in addition to some Jesuit parishes. This call also involved immigration lawyers who provided practical advice, and, according to Ms. Terry, “that’s where things started to move.” What expedited the process for the St. Agnes community, she adds, was “hearing from immigration lawyers the immense suffering people could face after the inauguration that we’re seeing in these executive orders.” Ms. Terry and the other members of the St. Agnes staff used a sample draft statement from Loyola University New Orleans, which declared the university a sanctuary, and adapted it with the university’s permission. Anticipating a flurry of executive orders soon after the inauguration, the St. Agnes community chose to release their declaration on Jan. 19.
A Pivotal Moment
San Francisco is in a unique position in the new sanctuary movement. It is a sanctuary city, and its mayor, Ed Lee, is San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor and the son of Chinese immigrants. Mr. Lee also worked as a tenants’ rights lawyer fighting the eviction of Chinese immigrants in the 1980s. In the late ’80s, Mayor Art Agnos signed the “City of Refuge” statement, which prevented San Francisco police from stopping or detaining individuals based on their national origin, ability to speak English or immigration status. At this year’s state of the city address on Jan. 26, Mayor Lee called back to Mr. Agnos’s earlier statement when he declared that San Francisco would be a sanctuary city “now, tomorrow and forever.”
Mr. Lee’s statement was also an echo of Gov. Jerry Brown’s state of the state address on Jan. 24, in which the governor, a former Jesuit novice, declared that California would “defend everybody—every man, woman and child—who has come here for a better life.” And California was already preparing to defend immigrants before the inauguration. In late December 2016, the California senate leader Kevin de León of Los Angeles, who has revealed that many of his own relatives are undocumented, introduced Senate Bill 54, the California Values Act, which would prevent state law enforcement from performing the functions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and create safe zones to prevent immigration agents from carrying out sweeps of schools, hospitals and courthouses. Mr. de León’s bill, which must pass several committees before hitting the senate floor, has been labeled an “urgency bill” and looks likely to pass both houses and be signed by Gov. Brown. It would effectively turn California into a sanctuary state. But none of this can prevent I.C.E. agents from continuing to round up and deport immigrants.
These state and local sanctuary initiatives come at a pivotal moment. On Feb. 5, President Trump told Bill O’Reilly of Fox News that California was “out of control” and that defunding sanctuary cities that “breed crime” would be a “weapon” to use against the state. But researchers from University of California, Riverside, and Hamline College wrote in The Washington Post in October of last year that years of research revealed that a city’s sanctuary status has “no statistically meaningful effect on crime.”
These state and local sanctuary initiatives come at a pivotal moment.
On Jan. 29, St. Agnes hosted a training session for a rapid response network, a team of volunteers who would become legal observers in the event of a raid by I.C.E. on undocumented residents. The meeting was also set up to create accompaniment teams that could offer support to families of deported individuals. Ms. Terry and Father Allender both said they expected and hoped for “maybe 30 people” to show up. Instead, 365 people came—so many that the event had to be moved from a smaller meeting room into the church itself. Demand was so high they immediately began planning a second training just after the issuance of Executive Order 13769, which barred entry to the United States for refugees, immigrants and visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries. The executive order led to major protests at multiple American airports including San Francisco International Airport, and it was clear to the people of St. Agnes that more legal observers might soon be needed.
The church hosted its second training on Feb. 9. Co-sponsored by St. Agnes, the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the community organizing group Faith in Action Bay Area and Pangea Legal Services, a group of immigration attorneys, the event brought over 100 people into St. Agnes. It was a relentlessly rainy and clammy day, and the Haight’s sidewalks were still slick as people began gathering in the church, shedding rain jackets and folding umbrellas. Donal Godfrey, S.J., himself an immigrant from Ireland, called the community to prayer, and then Ms. Terry stood to explain what the evening would entail.
Ms. Terry’s own interest in immigrant rights began while she was a master’s of divinity student at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. On an immersion trip to Fresno, in California’s Central Valley, Ms. Terry and her classmates visited dairy and citrus farms and heard farmers saying that they relied on undocumented laborers to do the field work Americans did not want to do. For Ms. Terry, who grew up in upstate New York and attended the Jesuit-run John Carroll University in Ohio, it was a transformative moment of “seeing the injustice, how we have these undocumented people growing and picking our food, and yet there’s this movement to deport those people.” Ms. Terry attended the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice at the School of the Americas several times as an undergraduate and heard about the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, but being in California’s Central Valley was her first glance of immigrant life up close. She saw that “folks had Mass in a garage with a priest once a month and couldn’t advocate for clean water because they were undocumented.” She says this experience deepened her “understanding of theology and how clearly the Gospel dictates how we should live in the world.”
When Ms. Terry spoke to the crowd at St. Agnes, she noted the parish does not have a lot of undocumented parishioners. She emphasized, however, that I.C.E. had carried out four million deportations in the last few years and that this was an opportunity for the people of St. Agnes to ask for forgiveness for not responding to the years of sweeps that had already occurred under President Barack Obama. That same day, she noted, a large sweep had taken place in Los Angeles, and news broke later that evening that hundreds of activists were holding a vigil at the I.C.E. headquarters and later blocked the U.S. 101 freeway. Ms. Terry introduced Alex, a student at San Francisco State University, and invited him to the ambo to tell the story of his mother’s experience with immigration authorities. Alex’s mother was detained by I.C.E. when he was 6 years old, and his family was able to hire an attorney and eventually get her released. But, he noted, most families do not have access to lawyers, and he and his brother, a marine, were both stereotyped because of their undocumented parents. “This,” he told the crowd, “is an immigrant family story.”
“Sanctuary is real people, not lofty ideals.”
Lorena Melgarejo, who works with the Archdiocese of San Francisco, had invited Alex to speak and was next to address the audience. Gesturing toward Alex and his family, she said that “sanctuary is real people, not lofty ideals.” She asked how many people in the audience knew a person who had been deported; only a couple of hands went up. “See,” she said, “we do not know one another.” Solidarity with undocumented San Franciscans during raids, Ms. Melgarejo said, is a way of “building the beloved community.” San Francisco’s network of lawyers and community organizations does not really exist outside of the boundaries of the city, and she hopes that this model will spread, but it will need to be built “from the ground up.”
She then broke down the two roles volunteers could play. People volunteering as rapid responders would be asked to arrive when a raid is taking place and to act as legal observers. Accompaniment teams would work with families after someone is detained, providing rides, food, childcare and other practical help. They can also hold vigils and perform public actions, and she noted that in March, when Mr. de León’s California Values Act bill arrived on the senate floor, teams of San Franciscans would travel to the state capitol for a “pray in.”
The final speakers of the evening were two young attorneys from Pangea legal services: Nilu, originally from Iran, whose family had been undocumented for years after multiple members of her family were killed in the 1979 revolution and she and her parents fled to the United States; and Luis, originally from Mexico, most of whose family is still undocumented today. Luis discussed how deportations have impacts “way beyond the deported individual”: families and communities are affected as well. He added that the importance of “moral witnesses” in rapid response teams was that it both helps attorneys in court and helps highlight these cases in the media, which can eventually nudge the political side of the debate. Most immigrants, he stated, are unaware of their constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, and I.C.E. violates those rights every time they pretend to be local law enforcement. The lawyer also said that nearly every time I.C.E. arrives at a home, they are not carrying a warrant, and it is the immigrant’s word versus the officer’s in court. These sweeps usually occur before dawn, before neighbors or friends can arrive to help out. “Deportation,” he emphasized, “happens mostly in the dark.”
Nilu added that legal witnesses from rapid response teams should look out for three things: coercion in the form of an I.C.E. officer grabbing someone’s I.D., consent of the immigrant to let I.C.E. into his or her home and lies—for example, when I.C.E. arrives pretending to be looking for someone else. The steps for legal witnesses are simple. The immigrant receives a code he or she can send a text message to, and a dispatcher returns their call and walks them through their rights. Rapid response teams speed to the site bringing paper, pens and smartphones. Their role is simply to take notes and audio or visual recording.
At this point, the attorneys asked two things of the audience. First, Luis inquired how many people planned to sign up as rapid responders or accompaniment teams. Nearly every person in the church raised their hand. Second, Nilu asked if anyone had questions. Once again, dozens of hands went up. Most of the questions were practical in nature: How close could a person stand to an I.C.E. officer? (Legally, they must stay on the sidewalk.) Should they write down the van’s license plate number? (Yes, the detail helps lawyers and the community member.) Do the dispatchers speak languages other than Spanish? (Not yet. But the city is working on getting interpreters and will eventually have 16 languages.) What if an I.C.E. officer grabs or assaults a legal witness? (“The law is fought in the courtroom, not on the street.”) An emotional shift had occurred throughout the evening. From Ms. Terry’s opening remarks to Alex’s personal story to Ms. Melgarejo’s call for solidarity to the clear urgency of the situation presented by the two attorneys, people in the church were boiling over with questions, concerns and, above all, a desire to help.
Afterward, Ms. Terry says, the church is still discerning what sanctuary will mean beyond offering these trainings. They plan to form an accompaniment team to assist families and to pool their resources to help offer material and legal help. She acknowledges that a parish with a lot of undocumented people in the Mission District or East Oakland could not offer a program like this because “people are living in fear.” It is churches like St. Agnes that must step up because they have “the resources and the people who are going to be able to work with folks in our city to make changes and support.” Ms. Terry adds that it is important for people to understand that there is an I.C.E. raid an average of once a week in San Francisco: “Refugees being resettled is not new. Deportations are not new. Our hearts have been transformed in the process, and now we’re prepared to respond to what’s been happening all along.”
An Urgent Need
Sister Maureen Duignan, the executive director of East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, who has worked with immigrants and refugees in the Bay Area since 1984, says that churches like St. Agnes can play an important role in a new sanctuary movement. “As a people of faith,” she says, “the individual churches can provide a safe place for the undocumented in their parishes by opening up their churches, giving them a room in their homes, offering them work that may sustain or advocating for work for them.” Churches can provide practical help with food, lodging and transportation for families, host a fundraiser for a family, offer a “know your rights” workshop or provide space to qualified agencies that assist immigrants and refugees. The main thing churches need to do, which both Ms. Terry and Sister Duignan emphasize, is to awaken people’s hearts to the notion that the undocumented live in fear. With the possibility of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals being repealed, Sister Duignan adds that undocumented students at the University of California, Berkeley, San Francisco State and other local colleges will be in urgent need of assistance as well.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco, according to both Ms. Terry and Father Allender, has been fully supportive of St. Agnes and the training of legal responders and accompaniment teams. In a statement issued on January 27, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said the archdiocese would “work arduously” to protect immigrants and that churches need to “create a spirit of welcome and solidarity” with immigrant parishioners. The archbishop also convened a meeting with every priest and deacon in the archdiocese to talk about providing resources for immigrants.
California has the country’s largest percentage of immigrants. Whites, who are projected to be a national minority by 2050, are already the minority in California, and four out of every 10 Californians is Latino or Chicano. And yet, like the rest of the United States, California has a shadow history of prejudice: the Japanese internment, the Chinese Exclusion Act and redlining in most of its cities, which for decades made it impossible for people of color to own a home. For all of its diversity, California’s cities are still segregated, and San Francisco is no exception. Its churches are often segregated as well.
If California really wants to show the way forward in terms of caring for immigrants, it must begin by listening to those immigrants and understanding their lives. For churches without large numbers of immigrants, St. Agnes shows a way forward: Parishes with greater resources can connect with parishes that do not have the means to protect and empower their immigrant populations. They can serve as a voice for those who cannot speak up for fear of deportation. And along the way, aside from providing material and legal help, sanctuary programs like St. Agnes’s might provide something equally valuable for California’s 10 million Catholics: an encounter with one’s neighbors and a chance to continue building the kingdom of God.