Foothills Unitarian Church becomes sanctuary congregation

Abby Currie

Video by Sunday Miller

Sanctuaries like Foothills Unitarian Church provide a safe place for immigrants when they are in need.

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A church. Sign reads Foothills Unitarian Church
The exterior of Foothills Unitarian Church. (Abby Currie | Collegian)

Senior Minister Reverend Gretchen Haley said after the 2016 presidential election, the Foothills Unitarian Church decided they needed to get more serious about what they were doing to help their immigrant neighbors in Fort Collins.

The church’s work was a response to fear following the election and resulting legislative actions, including the travel ban.

“There are people who value immigrants, who understand the plight of the refugee, who are not demonizing people because they are Muslim (and) who value difference and value people who are here from various cultures,” Haley said.

Haley said the Foothills Unitarian Church sanctuary mission statement is about love and justice in the community.

“Courageous love, for us, is about our connectedness with all people and the capacity to live in to that connectedness even when there are potential risks,” Haley said.

Sanctuary team leader Daniel Covey said he thinks there is a lot of confusion about what the experience of an immigrant is. 

“There appears to be a lot of mistrust and fear associated with immigrants and what they bring to our community,” Covey said. “I think immigrants serve very important roles in our community.”

There are no other options for those considering sanctuaries in Fort Collins—the only sanctuary congregation is Foothills Unitarian Church, Haley said. Sanctuary guests have to live in the church and not leave, and the congregation does not provide a legal pathway.

There is a lot of risk in being a sanctuary congregation, according to Haley.

“I know there are a lot of people that are very invested, and we hold these folks lives so closely connected to ours,” Haley said. “It’s kind of intimidating at times, in that we don’t want to mess it up.”

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I know there are a lot of people that are very invested … It’s kind of intimidating at times, in that we don’t want to mess it up.”

Senior Minister Reverend Gretchen Haley

Before officially becoming a sanctuary church, Foothills Unitarian met with the Plymouth United Church of Christ in order to gain more awareness of Fort Collins’ immigrant community.

A table with a plant, a candle and some business cards holding messages. The Foothills Unitarian Church cards read: "We all go together," "Being Human Takes Practice", "Love the hell out of this world" and "It's not the end of the story"
Reverend Gretchen Haley flips over her business cards to show messages on the other side.
(Abby Currie | Collegian)

Foothills Unitarian officially joined the sanctuary congregation in August, after six years of engagement with immigration justice. The church convened in March with all other congregations in the inter-faith community to begin a conversation about a coalition of the inter-faith community centered around a sanctuary.

According to Haley, the church receives referrals of guests through local immigration attorneys in Fort Collins and various organizations, including The Family Center/La Familia, Fuerza Latina and Alianza NorCo.

Referrals go through the church’s guest relations team, who considers the guest’s circumstances, what support the guest receives from their home community and how far the community is from Fort Collins. Background checks are also considered.

If a guest attended a deportation hearing, the church will look at the “why.” Past violence is considered most serious by the church. Haley said in those cases the decision is not a concrete “no,” but an analysis of the circumstances on behalf of the congregation is necessary.

The guest relations team works with whatever attorney the potential guest is working with. The needs of the guest are taken into consideration, because the church only has the room and resources to support one adult. If and when a guest has kids, the church would be willing to adjust, Haley said.

Immigrants under deportation cannot be harbored by the church, according to Haley.

“We aren’t doing anything to impede law enforcement from doing its job,” Haley said.

Authorities enter churches infrequently because it is considered bad press, according to Haley. However, the church does notifies Immigration and Customs Enforcement when an immigrant stays in their sanctuary. The church tells its volunteers that if ICE has a warrant, they can enter the church.

Haley said the congregation formed an inter-faith coalition fund, which can supply extra financial assistance. The church has two funds, the Interfaith Sanctuary and Accompaniment Coalition and the Emergency Immigration Fund.

The EIF supports those with a sudden change in immigration status, while ISAAC is used to support the efforts, and other immigration justice work, happening at Foothills Unitarian.

The congregation has already raised $22,000 for the EIF and between $15,000 and $16,000 for ISAAC, according to Haley.

“Fort Collins, I think, is very generous,” Haley said. “There are people out there who want to help, especially in this cultural environment, there are people who really want to be a part of making a difference, and doing something good.”

There are people who really want to be a part of making a difference, and doing something good.”

Senior Minister Reverend Gretchen Haley

The congregation has given two grants of $1,000 to families whose head of house was deported or entered sanctuary and has given 17 grants in support of renewal applications for the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program.

The first guest supposed to stay at Foothills found a legal avenue to delay deportation, which benefited the guest because she had young children, according to Haley.

“If you can delay (deportation), you want to delay,” Haley said.

The first guest was successful in efforts to delay and was able to be with their family. Haley said it was disappointing not to have a guest, but the point is to let go of expectations of fixing the world.

All the immigrants supported by the congregation so far have been from Spanish-speaking countries.

The congregation is working on improving their Spanish and their understanding of what it means to communicate, according to Haley. There is currently one bilingual speaker on the guest relations team and 30 people who identify as intermediate or fluent in Spanish.

Haley said her daughter is Hispanic and understands what it means to live in today’s society while dealing with prejudice or racism.

“I just feel connected and want to do something that is contributing to the positives and the connectedness and to help people humanize each other,” Haley said. “To remind each other we are not the characters of the internet, that we all have stories and there’s a lot more that unites us, that we don’t need to be afraid of each other.”

Collegian news reporter Abby Currie can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @abcchic15.