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Sanctuary movement launches in real time at Diocesan Convention

Surrounded by supporters, the Rev. J. Brent Bates (at microphone) reads his statement on the Sanctuary Church Movement and Immigrant Justice to Convention deputies. STEVEN BOSTON PHOTO
Kirk Petersen
Surrounded by supporters, the Rev. J. Brent Bates (at microphone) reads his statement on the Sanctuary Church Movement and Immigrant Justice to Convention deputies. STEVEN BOSTON PHOTO

When President Donald Trump issued his executive order at 4:42 PM Friday, temporarily denying entry to the country to refugees from anywhere, as well as to all people from seven majority-Muslim countries, the 143rd Annual Convention of the diocese was in full swing. It was far too late to add anything to the formal agenda.

But a group of priests and others had been working since Thursday evening to mobilize support within the diocese for refugees and immigrants. The executive order increased the sense of urgency.

As a point of privilege during the final plenary session on Saturday, the Rev. J. Brent Bates, Rector of Grace Church, Newark, rose to call on members of the diocese “to study the sanctuary church movement and engage in immigrant justice.”

Bates said the initiative was backed by “at least 24 lay and clergy deputies to this Convention,” but it soon became clear that the support was far broader than that.

He was joined in standing at the microphone by many of those deputies, and the group increased as he spoke. “We believe that the Hebrew Scriptures tell us that we are to respect and treat with respect the ‘alien,’ because we too were once ‘aliens’ in a foreign land,” Bates said, and he cited other scripture as well. His complete statement is available here.

At the end of his statement, Bates asked those standing with him to state just their names and affiliations into the microphone. One by one, 44 people did so. At that point, as people continued streaming toward the microphones, Bates asked all deputies who agreed with the statement to stand in place, and an overwhelming majority of the audience stood and applauded.

Bishop Mark Beckwith thanked the speakers, and said he and Chancellor Diane Sammons “want to be a part of this.” He said he viewed the issue as moral rather than political, and promised to meet with the organizers as soon as a meeting could be arranged.

“There are some issues that transcend politics, and this is one of them,” Bishop Beckwith said in an interview after Convention. “As people of faith I think we’re called to exercise our moral values… we need to stand up for people who, because of their vulnerability and the question about their status, aren’t able to stand up for themselves.”

Two days after Convention, Bates explained that his personal involvement in the issue stems from the fact that more than half of his parishioners are first- or second-generation immigrants, primarily from Africa and the Caribbean. Grace Church, Newark has been involved in immigration advocacy “for the five years that I’ve been rector,” he said. The church is right next to the Federal Bulding, which has been a scene of rallies for this and other issues.

Bates said that on the Thursday evening before Convention, he and three other people from the diocese attended an interfaith meeting on immigration organized by Faith in New Jersey. The others were the Rev. Joseph Harmon, Epiphany-Christ Church, East Orange; the Rev. John Mennell, St. Luke’s, Montclair; and Dave Sullivan from Church of the Messiah, Chester. The presentations they heard there convinced them of the need to act.

Bates plans to create a study group of six to 10 people to study the sanctuary church movement, build relationships with the national Episcopal Church, Faith in New Jersey and other like-minded organizations, and identify the risks associated with various forms of providing support and sanctuary to individuals fighting deportation.

He said he had learned at the Thursday meeting that “there is no such thing as sanctuary in the legal sense” – immigration officials might hesitate for publicity reasons to enter a church to arrest someone, but there was no legal bar to doing so.

To join this effort, please contact the Rev. J. Brent Bates directly at or 973-623-1733.

See also Episcopal Church expands its stand with refugees, immigrants and the undocumented: Country-wide groundswell of moral, sacred resistance expands (Episcopal News Service, Feb. 1, 2017).

The following video was broadcast as it happened via Facebook Live.