Sanctuary movement growing in response to immigration crisis

A Seattle church offering refuge to an undocumented immigrant is part of a growing movement nationwide.  By one count last January, there were more than 1,200 sanctuary congregations in the U.S.

Hours before he was to be deported to his native Mexico, Jose Robles moved into the Gethsemane Lutheran Church in downtown Seattle.  At that moment, he became the latest undocumented immigrant to find refuge in a Seattle church.

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Churches have been called a sanctuary for millennia, this place considered sacred by the faithful.  But the religious sanctuary has also been a place of refuge for those fleeing persecution or oppression.

"You can make a very good argument that the abolishment of slavery and the abolishment of segregation actually came about in part because the sanctuary movement," said theologian Mark Markuly, Ph.D.

Markuly sat inside the chapel at Seattle University. He is the dean of the university's school of theology and ministry. He said offering a safe haven is a basic tenet of the world's three dominant religions.

"It's kind of deep in most religious heritage to be welcoming to the stranger," said Markuly. "If you look at Islam, it's integrally important to their faith tradition to treat the stranger well.  If you look at the Jewish tradition. Leviticus and Numbers trying to welcome the stranger, make a place with a stranger. Loving the stranger even as yourself which one verse actually speaks of is very important. Then within the Christian tradition you have, of course, the 'prodigal son' story.  The person who stopped to help the other."

Jose Robles fled to the Gethsemane Lutheran Church last Thursday, the day he was supposed to be deported back to Mexico. A father of three living in Lakewood, Robles has been fighting for years to say in the U.S. But with deportation imminent, he found sanctuary at the Seattle church.

"We believe what we're doing is right and trying to encourage action on behalf of Mr. Robles and his family," said Rev. Joanne Engquist, Gethsemane Lutheran pastor. "And to just stay and do that as long as we have to."

Back in the 1980s, those seeking sanctuary were refugees from Central America. And Seattle's University Baptist Church opened its doors.  It was not a popular idea.  And in 1986, Seattle voters passed Initiative 30, canceling the city's sanctuary status.

At the same time, some 1,500 miles away in Tucson, Arizona, John Fife and several others at his Southside Presbyterian Church were on trial for offering sanctuary to refugees.  He remembers the vitriol directed at the church at and him.

"We got all kinds of messages saying we're going to come down and burn that church down," said Fife.  "We're going to come down. And, well, I even got death threats."

"There's always there's always possible repercussions coming at the hands of people who are operating on their own designs or even by the government itself," said Dean Markuly.

Even acts of faith come with risks, Markuly said, including death.  And the work can be dangerous. "It can be," he agreed.

But he said religious institutions that provide sanctuary do it because their members feel they must.

"As a community of faith," he said, "you must act."

Engquist was asked how long Jose Robles will be allowed to live at Gethsemane Lutheran.

"As long as I'm here."

Historically, a religious sanctuary has been considered a ''sensitive location'.' Officials have typically avoided entering to detain anyone.

KIRO 7 reached out to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement again to ask whether Mr. Robles will be allowed to stay in the church.  ICE officials never responded.