Written by Garry Thomas
Ithaca Monthly Meeting has a relatively long history of supporting refugees, some legal, some not, going back at least to when Ned Burtt opened his home to “Esperanza,” a Salvadoran who came to Ithaca through a sanctuary network of social justice organizations. Nancy Gabriel remembers a Meeting “phone tree” of people in the mid-1980s who were willing to go to the Burtt House if called and place themselves between law enforcement and Esperanza and Ned, if needed. It was not.
More recently, the Meeting—under the “umbrella” of the Peace & Social Justice Committee—worked with families from Burma, Iraq, and a young man from the Congo. As we helped find housing, arrange rides, deal with various bureaucracies, and help navigate cultural differences, there often developed strong friendships.
In none of these cases, whether of individuals seeking sanctuary or immigrant families needing support, did the Meeting work alone. We often worked with other organizations, such as Catholic Charities and Amnesty International. Our networks were alliances, however informal or situational.
One religious organization in Ithaca that has worked hard to formalize immigrant support is the First Congregational Church (FCCI). In May 2019, the church membership voted overwhelmingly to become Ithaca’s first “sanctuary church” and create an apartment within the church to house immigrants who were at risk of deportation. The church’s minister stated at the time, “The offering of shelter to the vulnerable is a sacred calling. Serving the immigrant community with hospitality, kindness, compassion, and love is a ministry that connects us to the core spirit of our tradition: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Over the course of the next several months, the FCCI formed the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance (ISA), which is composed of several supporting congregations. A young Guatemalan mother and her daughter were the first to move into the sanctuary apartment and lived there for more than two years, while their case was being adjudicated.
On September 8, 2023, FCCI welcomed a Peruvian family of four to reside in its sanctuary apartment while their legal request for asylum is in process. At that time, FCCI sent out a request to approximately ten congregations asking whether they would be willing to be “supporting congregations” and serve as members of the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance and be able to volunteer time and money to support the new family. The First Baptist Church, St. Catherine’s, the First Unitarian Society, the Living Hope Fellowship, Tikkun v’Or, and the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition have all agreed.
At its September meeting, our Peace & Social Justice Committee (P&SJ) decided that while it is not a “congregation,” it too would like to be identified publicly as being supportive of FCCI and ISA. We also decided to contribute to the sanctuary effort from our committee’s discretionary budget and we sent the names of four committee members who are interested in volunteering.
The committee also decided to take a Minute to the October business meeting asking if our Meeting would be willing to commit to being a “supporting congregation” within ISA. At the same time, P&SJ Committee hopes to interest more people in volunteering.