Episcopal Diocese of Washington uses Social Justice to Fight Hate, Deportation

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Inside the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Md. Photo credit: Cindy Puesan.


By Deanna Mudry

On the morning of Nov. 13, the rector of the Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Md, woke up to find the words “Trump nation whites only” written on a sign outside of advertising its Spanish service. The same message was also written on the wall of the church’s memorial garden.

“That was horrible,” the Rev. Paula Clark, canon of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s Race, Culture and Justice Ministry said. “We as a diocese were there on the premises that day and asked everyone in the diocese to come to the Latino service that afternoon to be present with them.”

This was just one of the 700 hate crimes that the Southern Poverty Law Center estimate took place in the week following the election.

For Christian groups, hate crimes are nothing new. Churches were at the center of the Civil Rights Movements in the 1960s, with church leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at its forefront. However, these churches were also victim to many hate crimes, notably the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. But as long as churches have faced hate, they’ve fought back.

This is in part because they play a particular and critical role in social justice movements, Clark said, as they’re called by God to spread love and unfettered by government or business interests.

“The church is in a unique position and quite frankly required position to do this work,” she said. “Its part of who we are and who Jesus calls us to be. The church does not have a path on that. It’s our mandate. That was the imperative during the Civil Rights Movement and it is today.”

As soon as the vandalism at the Church of Our Saviour was reported, everyone in church leadership received an email from the Bishop asking that they do everything in their power to be present at the Spanish service that afternoon, the Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin, the Latino minister for the Episcopal Diocese, said.

Those who showed up were given sidewalk chalk to write messages of love in the church’s driveway, and someone even put up a new sign that said “We love immigrants.”

“I was astounded at how many people showed up,” Goodwin said. “It was such support to the community. I mean, their hearts were broken.”

Since then, members of the Church of Our Saviour have connected with the Muslim and Jewish communities in Silver Spring, as well as other Christian denominations, who showed solidarity with them after the hate crime, Goodwin said. As a result, they’ve been collaborating regularly to support their shared community.

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A man writes in sidewalk chalk after the church’s Spanish mass Nov. 13. Photo Credit: Montgomery County Faith Community Advisory Council.

The Diocese has always been concerned with social justice, but saw a big resurgence in activism a few years ago with the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, after which they re-started anti-racism workshops. At this time they were primarily concerned with policing and gun violence, Clark said, but since the election, the breadth of their social justice work has has expanded, especially to immigration issues.

“Our immigrant communities in parishes are feeling very concerned about their welfare,” Clark said. “Documentation is sending anxiety through our parishes.”

There are 66 different nationalities represented in the diocese and one third of the parishioners are either non-white, not born in the U.S. or both, Clark said.

Over the past two years, the diocese has been working on the sanctuary movement in particular, Goodwin said, in order to help these communities, many of whom are now vulnerable because of changing immigration laws and national rhetoric.

Sanctuary is an ancient law founded in the Bible, she said. Under sanctuary, places of worship could serve as a safe haven for wrongly convicted criminals. The law is still customary today. In the 1980s many refugees fleeing war-torn Central America came to the U.S. and were welcomed by churches in the first iteration of the modern sanctuary movement. In 2011, President Obama designated places such as schools and churches as “sensitive locations” where U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can’t enforce law.

In the past, there was a feeling that families were safe, Goodwin said, but that has changed now. The number of deportations has begun to rise and ICE have been conducting raids in which they just stop people and make them show their documents. Some have even taken place outside of churches.

“This is really very disturbing to families,” Goodwin said. “Families are being broken up and it has just caused a lot of chaos in the immigrant communities.”

That’s why some parishes in the diocese are deciding to either open their doors to host people in imminent danger of being deported — which they havn’t had to do yet — or to host educational events or do advocacy work.

“It’s an unjust action against contributing members of our society,” she said. “Yes, they may have crossed the border illegally, but we feel it’s a moral obligation because we are called to defend the dignity of everybody.”

Goodwin said she believes hate crimes in the diocese have stopped because of all the people who have rallied to oppose hate and fight for related causes like immigration reform.

As the times continue to change, Clark said the church will continue to stay current and malleable in order to address “that which is pressing in God’s world,” not only in its multicultural parishes who experience these issues firsthand, but in the white and more affluent parishes who feel the call to Jesus just as strongly.

“I would hope that people would understand that when people are talking about issues of racism and racial discrimination, they’re talking about the person next to them who they count on,” she said.



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