What Is a Sanctuary Congregation?

Sanctuary Congregation

Recognizing that immigrants in our community are under threat from new national policies, the Board of the Unitarian Congregation of West Chester held a deep and lengthy discussion about what it would mean to become a Sanctuary Congregation.  The Board discussed a number of models and organizations, including the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.  Through that discussion, they elected to pursue a process, beginning with congregational discussion and discernment, that could lead to an eventual congregational vote.  This would be a public stand on the part of the congregation to commit ourselves to the work of sanctuary, supporting immigrant organizations and accompanying families facing deportation.  While a few congregations have made their space available to physically house families facing deportation, and some materials are geared toward this possibility, housing families is not a requirement for becoming a Sanctuary Congregation.

According to the Unitarian Universalist Association, “The Sanctuary Movement is a growing movement of faith and immigrant communities doing what Congress and the Administration refuse to do: protect and stand with immigrants facing deportation. Members pledge to protect immigrant families who face workplace discrimination or unjust deportation. Unitarian Universalists are joining the many religious leaders, congregations, and faith-based organizations of all denominations who are part of the Movement.” (click here for more information on the UUA website.)


The Sanctuary Pledge

Congregations are asked to publicly support sanctuary by signing this pledge:  “As people of faith and people of conscience, we pledge to resist the newly elected administration’s policy proposals to target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants and discriminate against marginalized communities. We will open up our congregations and communities as sanctuary spaces for those targeted by hate, and work alongside our friends, families, and neighbors to ensure the dignity and human rights of all people.”  Click here to read the entire pledge.


What Does Sanctuary Mean?

“By signing this pledge, we are dedicating ourselves to educate and activate our congregations, to amplify and respond to the voices of immigrant leaders, and to speak out against the discrimination of any and all marginalized people. We are ready to open the doors of our sacred spaces and accompany those facing deportation and discrimination….  We support those answering the call to provide sanctuary at schools, hospitals, college campuses, community centers and family homes. We will work with partner organizations to create sacred space of sanctuary wherever it is needed.”  (from the Sanctuary Pledge)


Accompanying Families – New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia Model

Key to Sanctuary work is the practice of accompanying families facing deportation through the legal process.  A few congregations are able to house families facing deportation in their buildings.  Housing families is not a requirement for becoming a Sanctuary Congregation.  Based on the model provided by the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, accompaniment could include:

  • Creating a team to walk with a family through their immigration case
  • Build a relationship with a family, providing emotional and spiritual support
  • Attend criminal court, immigration hearings (4 or 5 total, possibly 1 per 3-4 months), and detention visits
  • Work with NSM staff or other organizations to develop a strategy to stop deportation
  • In this model, congregations do not provide any direct financial support to families, but support the organization annually.

Click here for an overview of the New Sanctuary Movement Accompaniment Program, and here for program expectations.


Needs in Chester County

We are aware of these needs in Chester County:

  • transportation and accompaniment to hearings
  • transportation to psychological evaluations for trauma survivors seeking asylum
  • accompaniment in court hearings – who is in the courtroom impacts a judge’s decisions
  • developing partnerships with local leaders and organizations


Our Process

The decision to become a Sanctuary Congregation is a serious one, and deserves the consideration of the entire congregation.  While smaller groups can engage in work in this area, it takes a vote of the congregation to commit ourselves to be a Sanctuary Congregation.

Currently, there is no group in Chester County specifically dedicated to Sanctuary.  The New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia is an immigrant led group which works with several congregations.  Their work is focused in Philadelphia itself, rather than the surrounding counties.  One possibility that has been discussed is beginning our work with NSM Philadelphia, so we can gain experienced within a well organized program, and then turning our focus to Chester County.

  • Develop a Sanctuary Team (Please contact Rev. Dan if you are interested.)
  • Invite congregational conversation
  • Vote on Public Declaration
  • Plan path forward – through NSM Philadelphia, local work, or some combination
  • Engage in public advocacy and support for immigrant community
  • Begin the journey of Sanctuary and Accompaniment