DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) — The day after Thanksgiving, while many families were still enjoying their holiday together, Samuel Oliver-Bruno went with his wife, son and fellow church members to an appointment at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Morrisville, N.C. Since Oliver-Bruno, an undocumented immigrant, took sanctuary 11 months ago at CityWell Church, a United Methodist congregation in Durham, he had been waiting for this opportunity to make the case for why he should be able to stay with his family in the United States.
After 22 years here, his family knows no other home. Oliver-Bruno hoped this appointment would be his first step toward a “deferred action” status that would allow him to return home and work legally. Instead, plainclothes ICE officers tackled him in the lobby of the USCIS office and seized him for deportation.
When his church family realized the trap he had been lured into, they followed him to the parking lot, encircled the minivan ICE agents put him in and began singing worship songs. Families with their own children in tow insisted they were there to extend the religious sanctuary of their church building to this place of public witness.
They refused to leave, maintaining their service of worship until local police had handcuffed 27 of them and carried them away. The last woman handcuffed fell to her knees and lay down in front of the minivan. As the arresting officers carried her away, she sang, “We shall not, we shall not be moved.…”
Since the Trump administration initiated its zero-tolerance immigration policy, denying stays of removal to undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for decades, faith communities here and around the country have offered solidarity and support to people who face imminent deportation by welcoming them into religious sanctuary.
As a minister in North Carolina, I realized the church was under assault as the Trump administration’s extreme enforcement actions separated families. But I also got to know church communities like CityWell’s that were ready to practice moral resistance.
The thuggish and deceptive capture of Samuel Oliver-Bruno is not only an assault on him and his family. It is also an attack on the religious liberty of faith communities that offer sanctuary as an act of worship.
Members of CityWell had not rehearsed the tactics of civil disobedience; they knew what to do when their brother was assaulted because they have worshiped Jesus with him for the past year. They remembered a story that calls us to welcome strangers because we, too, were once strangers in a foreign land. Because they have gathered around the Jesus who identified with the marginalized and stood up to the violent powers of his own day, they knew they had to do the same. Their resistance was a public act of worship.
In an appeal to the conservative white evangelicals at the core of his political base, President Trump has claimed to be a champion of religious liberty. Under his administration, the Department of Justice has established a “Religious Liberty Task Force” and spokesmen of the religious right have celebrated Trump as America’s “most evangelical-friendly president.”
But the religious liberty this administration trumpets is a license to sentimentally use religion as a mask for the cruelty that is being executed in the name of nationalism.
Throughout the Bible, political powers that oppress poor people and immigrants are described as wild beasts. The prophet Ezekiel calls them “ravenous wolves” and Isaiah says their hooves trample like horses and they seize their prey like lions. In Revelation 13, an unjust political regime is described as a beast that resurrects an earlier beast that had been mortally wounded.
It’s a powerful image to consider in the Trump era, as nooses hang in trees during the U.S. Senate runoff election in Mississippi and immigrants face tear gas at our southern border in scenes reminiscent of Bull Connor’s Birmingham. We are, indeed, living in biblical times.
But the sanctuary community’s witness is a reminder that, however vicious they may seem, wild beasts and political regimes are creatures. They are not God.
People who are formed by worship of the living God know they are free to follow God’s law no matter what secular authorities say. This is the religious liberty that led many of this nation’s original revolutionaries to rebel against King George, and it’s the faith that inspired abolitionists, women suffragists and civil rights workers to push us toward a more perfect union. This is the faith of today’s sanctuary movement, which was attacked by ICE agents in Morrisville.
President Trump has consistently invoked a fictitious “War on Christmas” at his rallies to stir up the crowd, claiming victory against those who attacked the holiday. In 2018 the “War on Christmas” is an assault led by President Trump and justified by his evangelical enablers.
If we want to follow the Christ child who came to bring peace on earth and goodwill toward all people, we must learn from the moral witnesses who sang “We Shall Not Be Moved” while officers carried them off to jail. If we are not free to offer sanctuary as God’s people, we are not free to follow the baby Jesus who was able to grow up and establish the church because he found refuge from King Herod’s violence in Egypt.
(Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an associate minister at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in North Carolina, is the author, most recently, of “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)