WINONA, Minn. — Winonans of faith are rallying behind an effort to create a sanctuary church, a place where immigrants living in the U.S. illegally can stay without fear of deportation as they follow the winding legal path toward citizenship.
The recently formed Winona Sanctuary Network is looking for a local church that's open to serving as a sanctuary, as well as volunteers willing to cook, clean and do laundry for the residents and families who will stay there.
But organizer Dwayne Voegeli says the network's chief responsibility is building a broad base of support for such immigrants and their families, the kind of group that will stand by and protect them if federal authorities like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement ever close in.
"It's hard for someone to be taken away if they have a community, a circle of people supporting them," said Voegeli, who teaches social studies at Winona Senior High School. "People of faith have always been at the forefront of social justice, and the more of us there are, the better."
There is no law stating that immigrations in the country illegally or criminals are safe inside the walls of a church. But federal authorities, to this point, have respected the privacy and sanctity of so-called "sensitive locations," like places of worship.
At the grocery store, immigrants in the country illegally can be rounded up.
At the movie theater, families can be pulled apart.
But at a church, ICE officials are known to back down and leave people be. They don't often enter without a warrant in hand.
The Winona Daily News reports that Voegeli and other members of the network, a spinoff of the Winona Interfaith Council, say the legality of sanctuary churches is written in shades of gray. They don't know what would happen if, say, federal authorities stopped respecting these sensitive locations. There's a chance they'd face legal consequences.
"Sometimes, as a person of faith, there's a higher law," Voegeli said. "Historically, religion has sometimes been part of the problem. This is a chance for religion to be part of the solution."
The sanctuary network has been gathering steam and gaining supporters since its first informational meeting in late February.
That meeting attracted nearly 70 people from an array of faiths — more than twice the number organizers were expecting — and a mix of mostly small churches have expressed support for the project.
Nancy Bachler, one of the organizers, said the group has heard from roughly half of the churches in Winona, including some of the mainline parishes.
Nancy, whose husband Steve is also involved with Winona's sanctuary church movement, said offering help to people who need it, whatever that help entails, is one of the pillars of her faith.
"It's so important to open our hearts to the faiths and beliefs of other people," she said. "It's an important thing to examine what moves your heart. We should make sure that what moves us is love — not prejudice."
"I know they had a difficult time, but what kept them going was they had a commitment to helping making things work. I want to help make things work," said Steve, whose ancestors emigrated from western Europe.
Members of the sanctuary network point out that providing safety and shelter — even in a way that bends the law — is nothing new in Winona or around the world.
American churches and communities — perhaps even Winona — helped move fugitive slaves to Canada before and during the Civil War.
Villages in Europe and countries across the world accepted people of Jewish faith during the Holocaust.
And during the past few years, sanctuary churches have begun to pop up in all corners of the United States — there's a couple in Rochester and one in Northfield, according to Voegeli.
Father James Callahan helped turn Saint Mary's Church in Worthington into a sanctuary church in late 2016.
Callahan said his church has provided sanctuary to roughly 10 immigrants without documentation in the past year and a half. ICE, so far, has not come knocking.
"Sanctuary is one of the most ancient traditions of our church," said Callahan, who, when asked about the legal consequences of his work, says he has a higher set of values to uphold. "We're told to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We can't just do that when it's convenient."
If Winona gets its own sanctuary church, Voegeli said it will not be used to shelter violent criminals or people convicted of felonies — but to help hard-working and otherwise law-abiding immigrants obtain legal citizenship, and to keep families intact.
Often, he said, people are deported when they're on the cusp of citizenship. They might only need a lawyer, or money, or a map to help them navigate the legal process.
In other words, Voegeli said, they need a chance.
"I don't view any federal authority as the enemy . but we're caught up in this broken immigration system," he said. "We need a system that's fair and efficient, a system that filters out criminals. But we also need to bring in good, hard-working folks that might just need a little help and an opportunity. People like our ancestors."
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Winona Daily News.