As politics of immigration heat up, Virginia churches join growing sanctuary movement

Abbie Arevalo-Herrera holds her son at the First Unitarian Universalist Chuch in Richmond, where she has taken sanctuary from deportation. She sought asylum in the United States after receiving death threats from her oldest child’s father. (Julia Rendleman/For The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Of course the urgent call came at night and when the senior minister was out of town: A local woman was going to be deported the next morning unless First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond could give her sanctuary.

Congregation leaders got on a video conference with the senior pastor. It was a big step, defying federal authorities. But Abbie Arevalo-Herrera feared for her life if she were sent back to Honduras, where she had been abused by the father of one of her children.

So the church members, who had spent six months deliberating whether to make the building a sanctuary for immigrants, decided to shelter Arevalo-Herrera and her two young children. The family arrived shortly after midnight on June 20 and has taken up residence in the church basement.

“This isn’t a political statement,” said senior minister Jeanne Pupke, who cut short a conference in Kansas City, Mo., to get back to Richmond. “It’s a human statement that we’re all called to uphold human dignity.”

The issue of sanctuary for undocumented immigrants has been politically fraught in Virginia. There are no “sanctuary cities” in the state, but the topic laced last year’s elections for governor and House of Delegates and has already come up in this year’s race for U.S. Senate, with Republican candidate Corey A. Stewart promising to “end the scourge of illegal aliens.”

With the Trump administration staking out an especially hard line against immigrants, a growing group of Virginia churches is taking matters into its own hands. Fifteen houses of worship have joined the Central Virginia Sanctuary Network and pledged to support the effort to create sanctuaries for immigrants. Three more have taken the extra step of preparing to house those seeking to avoid deportation.

Two are in Charlottesville — an Episcopal church and a Quaker meeting house. For the Quakers, last year’s racial violence in Charlottesville interrupted a long, methodical discussion of whether to take action regarding immigrants.

“It was a watershed moment at which we really felt called to do something and to act rather decisively,” said Isaac May, a graduate student and spokesman for the group.

The houses of worship joining the movement include a synagogue and many Christian denominations — Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist among them. Organizers are working to add more in light of recent news about families being separated at the border and facing harsh treatment.

“What if we could get 100 churches to consider themselves sanctuaries? What is the message that goes back to [the Trump administration], that the uprising is in the churches?” Pupke said.

Her church appears to be the first in the state to actually provide sanctuary to an immigrant family, joining about 40 other churches doing the same nationwide.

Pupke’s congregation was particularly motivated by the recent announcement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that domestic violence will no longer count as cause for taking refuge in this country.

“Does Mr. Sessions intend to disregard domestic violence, which is a concern for all…

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