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First Unitarian Church of PVD awarded for their work in becoming state’s first Sanctuary Congregation



Donald Anderson, Jay Glasson, Liz Lerner Maclay, Katherine Ahlquist, Chontell Washington

The First Unitarian Church of Providence was presented with a Heroes of Faith Congregational Award Thursday morning for its work in becoming the first Sanctuary Congregation in Rhode Island. Since the election of Donald Trump the church has been researching and working to provide a safe place for an undocumented immigrant of family to be protected from deportation by United States Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE).

The church was presented with the award at the Eighth Annual Heroes of Faith Breakfast at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet.

“We live in challenging days,” said Reverend Donald Anderson, executive director of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. “Challenging days call for faithful responses on the part of members of the faith community. One of the historic ways in which the faith community has spoken out and acted is by providing Sanctuary.”

The First Unitarian Church of Providence was the first church to contact the Rhode Island Council of Churches with an interest in becoming a sanctuary church, said Anderson.

“It is not an easy thing to become a Sanctuary Congregation,” said Anderson. “It’s easy to raise your hand, but to follow through and do all the things that are necessary is incredibly challenging.

“These folks have worked with the City of Providence and other folks to prepare themselves, so, should it become necessary, and we hope it will never be necessary but given the world we live in, it’s entirely possible that it will be necessary, to provide Sanctuary.”

Not only is the First Unitarian Church of Providence the first congregation to do this work, said Anderson, “but the way in which they’ve done it has been responsible and thorough.

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“And should the time come that they have to take someone into Sanctuary, [the Rhode Island Council of Churches] will come to a number of you [the representatives of faiths and congregations in the audience] and say, ‘Will you help?’” said Anderson. “Because it’s more than any one congregation is able to do.”

Katherine Ahlquist

Accepting the Award was the First Unitarian Church of Providence’s new minister, the Reverend Liz Lerner Maclay, the congregation’s President Jay Glasson and congregation member Katherine Ahlquist. (Full disclosure, Katherine is my spouse.)

“We just felt it was really important for our congregation to stand up for those who don’t have proper representation,” said Ahlquist, accepting the award. “We wanted to make sure that we came together as a group to be a voice for them. We have reached out to other congregations and community groups to help us with this project. We are always looking for more partners in this.

“We are becoming a Sanctuary Congregation, which means setting up a space for someone to live in. And once we have that done, we expect that someone will probably be coming to us, looking for help. We realize that there are so many more people than we’ll be able to help, but in helping this one person give voice to the problems and difficulties that many people are facing right now, we hope to ease some of the hardship in Rhode Island.”

Reverend Lerner Maclay was on Latino Public Radio Tuesday morning with Dr Pablo Rodriguez to discuss her church’s decision to become a Sanctuary Congregation.

Undocumented immigrants, said Rodriguez, are “under siege” by the current administration in Washington.

“The church voted in April to become a Sanctuary Congregation,” said Lerner Maclay, “meaning that we are preparing ourselves to be a place that an individual or a family [who is undocumented and at risk of deportation] will be able to stay inside the church and be safe.

“It was an overwhelming vote,” said Lerner Maclay, noting that 90 percent of the church voted in favor.

“The second piece of this, which I think we need to be mindful of,” continued Lerner Maclay, “is that if every single church in Rhode Island said they were going to take in a family or an individual who is undocumented, that would not meet the need. That wouldn’t come close to meeting the need.

“There is the sanctuary status within the church, but there is also the sanctuary status beyond the walls that the church needs to be committed to.”

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.