OBERLIN — First Church in Oberlin invited church and community members to the first of four discussions this month about establishing the first sanctuary church in the county.
The goal of the two-part sessions is to inform church members and discuss whether this is something they want.
The session, led by church outreach committee members John Gates and Anne Elder, included a small introduction to the church’s storied history of protecting people within its walls since the abolitionist movement.
Sarah Johnson, a resident in Oberlin, said she came to be a part of the community conversation to support how she could. Although she is not a member of the church and won’t have a vote on the decision, she hopes to aid in the conversation.
“I’m excited to see where this conversation goes and I’m excited Oberlin is living up to its heritage as a community that welcomes a stranger,” she said.
The idea came in November when a family asked Pastor David Hill and his congregation if they could seek sanctuary from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But at the time, they weren’t sure and couldn’t respond in time before they fled the county.
The decision also came in response to increased ICE activity during the Trump Administration, Hill said. The proportion of deportations resulting from ICE arrests increased from 27 percent of total removals in 2016 to 36 percent in 2017, according to the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report.
“Ideally, it’s best if we can work within the legal parameters, but if we feel there is unjust treatment of people and there’s some way that we can help, we will do it,” he said.
After the sessions, church members will vote at a regular meeting April 22; only official members can vote in-person. Although the results will be accepted as a majority, Hill said there should be a considerable margin. If not, Hill said, the church will postpone a decision and discuss the matter more.
If the church decides to become a sanctuary church, it will act as a “sensitive location,” which ICE usually avoids due to a policy created in 2011. Regardless of the label, First Church cannot and will not stop ICE agents if the agents choose to enter the church without permission or proper paperwork, nor will it hide the immigrants from agents.
Nothing they are doing is explicitly illegal, “just making it a little harder for ICE,” Hill said.
The next meeting of the second session will be March 14 where people can hear from keynote speakers and discuss more on the subject. The two sessions will repeat beginning March 21 and 28, all scheduled at the church 6:45 to 8 p.m.