WINONA, MINN. — Winonans of faith are rallying behind an effort to create a sanctuary church, a place where undocumented immigrants can stay without fear of deportation as they follow the winding legal path toward citizenship.
The new 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 such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers ever come 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,” he said, “and the more of us there are, the better.”
There is no law stating that undocumented immigrants 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” such as houses of worship. However, shopping at a grocery store, immigrants can be rounded up. At the movie theater, families can be pulled apart.
But inside a church, immigration agents don’t often enter without a warrant. And it’s a place where people of faith can live out their convictions. “Sometimes, as a person of faith, there’s a higher law,” Voegeli said.
The sanctuary network has been gathering steam since its first meeting in late February, which attracted nearly 70 people from an array of faiths, twice the number organizers were expecting.
Nancy Bachler, one of the organizers, said the group has heard from roughly half the churches in Winona. She said offering help to people in need is a pillar of her faith.
“We should make sure that what moves us is love, not prejudice,” she said.
Members of the sanctuary network point out that providing safety and shelter is nothing new in Winona or around the world.
American churches and communities helped move fugitive slaves to Canada before and during the Civil War, and some Europeans during World War II concealed and protected Jews during the Holocaust.
And during the past few years, sanctuary churches have begun to pop up in all corners of the United States, including in Rochester and Northfield, said Voegeli.
Father James Callahan helped turn St. Mary’s Church in Worthington into a sanctuary church in 2016. The church has provided sanctuary to roughly 10 immigrants without documentation in the past year and a half, he said.
“Sanctuary is one of the most ancient traditions of our church,” said Callahan. “We’re told to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We can’t just do that when it’s convenient.”
If Winona creates a sanctuary church, Voegeli said it will not be used to shelter violent criminals or felons, but to help hardworking 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, hardworking folks that might just need a little help and an opportunity. People like our ancestors.”