Sanctuary showdown: City, churches at odds over immigration issue

7/20/2017 | Chris Maza and G. Michael Dobbs

Category: July

Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, senior pastor of South Congregational Church, made the announcement that his church would act as a physical sanctuary for illegal immigrants on June 16 alongside local clergy and members of the Pioneer Valley Project.
Reminder Publications photo by Chris Maza

In spite of substantial pushback from city officials including Mayor Domenic Sarno, the Springfield Sanctuary and Solidarity Network will continue its efforts to provide sanctuary for illegal immigrants.

Approximately 70 people gathered at the South Congregational Church on July 6 to pray at the plaza in front of the church that would act as the physical shelter for those seeking sanctuary.

Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, senior pastor of South Congregational Church, first made the announcement that his church would act as a physical sanctuary on June 16 alongside local clergy and members of the Pioneer Valley Project.

“We’re in the process of organizing this not only at South Congregational Church, but also in cooperation with five other area churches or religious organizations. There’s a fairly well-defined plan, but we need to put all of the pieces together that will include accommodations within the building,” Gerstenlauer said. “It will include also providing food if needed, but the ability to make their own food. We’ll provide bedding if needed, but also the space in which they can make their own home, albeit on a temporary basis. The idea is not to provide a replacement for the homes they are now feeling unsafe in, but rather a safe place for a temporary period of time.”

Other religious groups involved with the Springfield Sanctuary and Solidarity Network, which includes Blessed Sacrament and All Souls Church, Holy Cross Church, Holy Name Church, Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield and the Unitarian Universalists Society of Greater Springfield, will offer various degrees of assistance in the sanctuary process.

The effort is in response to what Sister Melinda Pellerin of the Sisters of St. Joseph called “the racist and unjust policies” implemented through executive orders signed by President Donald Trump. Those policies, she said, have led to a 150 percent increase in “non-criminal arrests” of undocumented immigrants.

“The definition of who is a priority for deportation has been expanded well beyond those with violent criminal convictions,” she said. “This is part of what has been called a blueprint for mass deportation. This stands in contrast to our faith values.”

The Pioneer Valley Project estimates that Springfield is home to 5,000 to 6,000 undocumented immigrants.

Sarno, who has remained steadfast in his opposition to sanctuary for those who have entered the country illegally, has pushed back against the plan.

The Mayor’s Office in a June 19 statement cited potential building, housing, fire, public safety, health and sanitary code violations stemming from the use of the church as a shelter and and added the city “will not stand for the harboring and protecting of illegal and/or criminal activities” at the church.

The statement continued, “This is a change of use for a building not designed to be safely occupied as a housing shelter. Again, these individuals have been determined for one illegal and/or criminal reason to face deportation. No one is against legal immigration aspects, especially those who have played by the rules. He further adds that there are a number of individuals and families who have followed proper legal course to obtain empowerment program help and citizenship that are patiently waiting for their opportunity.”

Sarno also charged “the appropriate city departments to review the situation to determine what recourse the city has to protect its interests” and as a result, Building Commissioner Steve Desilets met with Gerstenlauer and Pioneer Valley Project Director and Lead Organizer Tara Parrish on June 20 and followed up that meeting with a letter that laid out various concerns regarding the use of the church as a residence.

In the letter in question, Desilets informed Gerstenlauer the church did not qualify as a shelter because it is not properly zoned. For the church, or parts of it, to act as a shelter, the church would have to submit a site plan for approval by the City Council.

Churches can serve as temporary emergency shelters according to the Massachusetts building code, he noted, but only in the event of a cold weather emergency or state of emergency declared by the governor. In those instances a church can shelter people for more than seven consecutive days or more than 35 days in a calendar year.

Desilets advised Gerstenlauer that the church would also have to hire an architect to develop plans to convert the church or parts of it and those plans would have to be included in an application for a building permit. The conversion, Desilets said, would require installing emergency sprinklers, bringing electrical and plumbing systems up to code, making the shelter space completely handicap accessible, and providing sanitary facilities such as bathrooms and showers and space for bedding.

Health codes would also have to be addressed if cooking were to take place on site and there are requirements for storage and management of medical waste that would have to be met.

Desilets concluded by noting the church is not currently housing anyone and does not plan to do so until the property is in compliance.

In a statement to Reminder Publications Parrish said the three met for an “informational meeting” and noted there was no inspection, nor was the visit a response to any violation.

She went on to say Desilets’ letter “indicates that city officials appear to be prioritizing the sanctuary issue.”

She stated, “As we know, Springfield has many, many blighted properties and many of these properties have existing code violations. There is plenty of current work to do to ensure that Springfield families and neighborhoods are kept safe. It's questionable as to why all of a sudden there seems to be such a clear focus on South Congregational Church.”

Parrish added the Pioneer Valley Project planned to file a Freedom of Information Act request for “all communications between the mayor and all city department heads and employees regarding the sanctuary issue.”

Gerstenlauer added he appreciated Desilets’ “freely offered a narrative version of city rules and regulations.” He also invted all government officials, including Sarno, to participate in the July 6 vigil. Sarno did not attend. Gerstenlauer has previously stated he would welcome a dialogue with the mayor on the issue.

He stressed the sanctuary effort is not politically motivated, but based on religious and ethical grounds and the church would “provide extravagant hospitality” to those who feel threatened or oppressed. He also noted that the effort to provide sanctuary was one that was supported throughout the Pioneer Valley beyond the six current organizations and others may join the movement.

Parrish said there have been no requests for sanctuary and that if someone asks for protection there would be an “intricate process that could carefully consider” the application.

Parrish added, “It would have to be the right situation and the right family or individual.”

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