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In an era of harsh immigration policies, Bay Area faith leaders create sanctuary

on December 13, 2018

On a bright fall morning on the drive from Berkeley to Sacramento, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and Reverend Deborah Lee practice the melody to a short protest song they’ll be leading later that afternoon. On her phone, Gottlieb pulls up the YouTube version of the song “I Will Be Your Standing Stone” by Melanie DeMore. “I will be your standing stone,” they sing softly, along with the video. “I will stand by you.”

It is a simple song, sweet and memorable, full of hope. As Lee drives, Gottlieb eats slices of fruit from a Tupperware container, and the two discuss their goals for the day. They are planning to ask the governor—former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown—to pardon dozens of Cambodian refugees who are slated for deportation, some of whom committed crimes when they were just teenagers.

Gottlieb and Lee are both Bay Area spiritual leaders and activists who use their platform as religious leaders to advocate for the rights and protection of immigrants. Gottlieb is the director and founder of the Jewish Shomeret Shalom Rabbinic School and Learning Center in Berkeley, and a musician, storyteller and activist. She is one of the first ten women to be ordained as a rabbi in modern Jewish history.  

Lee, a minister with the United Church of Christ, is the executive director of the Oakland-based Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, which connects California clergy and congregations to social justice efforts, particularly those centered on immigration and criminal justice reform. One of the group’s guiding beliefs is that migration is sacred, and immigrants should be treated with dignity. Their work includes organizing vigils, offering shelter to recent immigrants and raising funds to help those detained by immigration authorities pay bonds for their release.

These two women are among many faith leaders in the Bay Area working to help immigrants navigate the legal system, find community and support, and adjust to living in a new country. Along with their colleague Sam Davis of Oakland’s Kehilla Synagogue, they are part of a network that has hosted “Know Your Rights” forums that help educate immigrants and refugees about what to do if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents knock on their doors. They have helped run hotlines that people can call for advice if they or someone they love has been detained. They have also held monthly vigils outside the West County Detention Center in Richmond, which was contracted by ICE to hold federal immigration detainees, and raised money for detainees’ bail.

Both Lee and Gottlieb are committed to addressing what they feel are wrongs the United States government has perpetuated against refugees and immigrants, and both are guided to this conclusion by their faith. Lee cites Leviticus 19:33-34—“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born”—as evidence that it is Christian to treat immigrants well. And Gottlieb points out that in the Torah it says 36 times not to mistreat a stranger.

Today’s trip to Sacramento is motivated by their desire to live in a world where those who come to the US seeking a better life are treated with dignity, instead of being locked up and sent away. Last fall, as reported by The Sacramento Bee, federal immigration authorities detained between 100 and 200 Cambodian nationals in one of the largest targeted sweeps ever conducted by ICE. Detainees filed a federal class action lawsuit, arguing that the arrests were unlawful and denied detained Cambodians their due process rights.

Advocates including Gottlieb and Lee say that these raids have devastated families that have been broken apart by the arrests. Some of the detainees came to the US as children after their families fled the Khmer Rouge, and later became eligible for deportation after committing relatively minor crimes such as driving under the influence or possessing marijuana for sale. But sending them back to Cambodia would mean returning them to a country they barely know. The religious leaders plan to ask Brown to issue pardons on behalf of the detainees, many of whom are scheduled for imminent deportation.

As they arrive in Sacramento, Lee and Gottlieb greet the dozens of people gathered in the lobby of the California State Capitol to participate in a rally. Lee has changed into her long white clerical robes, and Gottlieb is looking over the remarks she has prepared for today, her glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, a long scarf draped around her shoulders. Attendees hold chains of paper cranes and signs that read: “Pardon is an act of faith.” Security guards stand by, clearing a space for passersby. Many of those gathered in the lobby seem to know each other, and the mood in the room is solemn but hopeful.

There are no legislators in sight, but the crowd stands in front of Brown’s closed chamber doors. They begin with a reading of the names of the 60 detained people, followed by a moment of silence.

“We believe that people have the power to be far more than their worst moments,” Lee then says, her voice strong. “May our actions today lead to their freedom.”

One refugee, who has already been pardoned by the governor, speaks solemnly to the crowd, holding a mic in both his hands. “This is a terrifying act of mass deportation,” he says, sharing only his first name, Moonie. “Yes, we made mistakes—but we deserve a second chance. America should be enraged. It claims to be a Christian nation, but where is the forgiveness? Where is the second chances?”

Gottlieb speaks after a round of hearty applause. She looks up at the ceiling for a moment before she speaks. “We ask pardon from the many sins America has committed,” Gottlieb says.

She then reads through a list of sins in a call-and-response, as the audience repeats each sin after her.

For the sin of neglect.
For the sin of mass incarceration.
Hunger.
Lack of resources for youth.
For the sins of war, abandoning our brothers and sisters, transgressing against refugees and trans people.
For the sin of ICE, of border walls, of deportations.

As the ceremony wraps up, Lee reminds everyone that the pardons they are asking for are not just for the people being detained. “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,” Lee says. “And we are all in need of pardon for the harm this country has caused. To those seeking pardons: You are already pardoned. You are already whole.”

***

After the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, activists and faith-based organizations in Oakland and across the country were grimly strategizing about the best way to advocate for the safety and dignity of the thousands of undocumented immigrants currently living in the US, whose futures now seemed extremely uncertain. Trump had campaigned on a promise of enacting strict immigration policies including a ban on immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries, the construction of a wall at the southern border that Mexico would pay for, and an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA, which began during the Obama administration, granted “Dreamers” who were brought to the US illegally as children a two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.

Trump’s administration seemed determined to keep those promises. In late January, 2017, Trump signed an executive order that banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the US for 90 days, suspended entry for all Syrian refugees indefinitely, and prohibited any other refugees from coming into the country for 120 days. Trump’s stated reason for enacting this order was to protect the nation from “foreign terrorist entry,” but it was met with widespread condemnation and class action lawsuits. Still, this June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold the Trump administration’s third version of the travel ban, which now restricts entry from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Venezuela.

Building the wall, however, is one promise Trump seems unlikely to keep. After two years of a Republican-controlled senate, there has been no vote in favor of funding the construction of a wall along the southern border. And with a new Democrat-controlled House, a vote seems even less likely. But DACA recipients’ futures are still not set. In September, 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the government was terminating the program. A slew of court cases challenging this action followed, and judges in San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. soon issued injunctions preventing the administration from ending DACA. But there still has been no final decision. Depending on how higher courts rule in the coming months, Dreamers could still lose their protections for good.

Leaders like Lee, Gottlieb and Davis are part of what they are calling the “New Sanctuary Movement,” which is focused on opposing these Trump administration policies. They take their inspiration from a religious and political campaign that surfaced in the 1980s near the US-Mexico border, at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. This was the first of nearly 500 faith congregations to declare itself a “sanctuary,” offering shelter, transportation and other aid to Central American refugees fleeing the violence of US-backed civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. Leaders of this sanctuary movement traced its roots to medieval law, Jewish and Christian social teachings, the Underground Railroad, the abolitionist movement, and the practice of sheltering Jewish people during the Holocaust.

In January, 2017, in the weeks leading up to Trump’s inauguration, the number of congregations declaring themselves “sanctuaries” doubled to 800, and has continued to rise. Today’s new movement is made up over 1,100 congregations across the country “doing what Congress and the [Trump] Administration refuse to do: protect and stand with immigrants facing deportation,” according to a website created by its leaders.

“I really think it’s time for us to take a leap of faith,” said Lee. “Sometimes churches are very good at studying an issue, or reading lots of books and watching lots of films. And those are very powerful tools. But we don’t have the luxury to just study and do nothing anymore.”

Lee’s parents immigrated to the United States from Indonesia in the 1970s, and arrived in northeast Ohio, where they raised Lee. She was raised a Christian, but says that she felt like something was missing. Church seemed like an apolitical place, disconnected somehow from the world and its injustices. She first saw an example of what it means for faith and social justice to meet during her college years at UC Berkeley in the 1980s. She met members of the campus ministry who she says were actively involved in providing protection and support to Central Americans who were fleeing civil wars and death squads. Lee helped organize fundraisers and lobby Congress, and even got arrested at a protest speaking against US military aid to El Salvador.  

“This place was formative to me because it was a working and active space,” Lee said of her college years organizing with the campus ministry. “It brought together faith values with concrete action.”

Lee has now been doing faith activism for 25 years, organizing on issues of race, gender, economic justice and anti-militarism, as well as immigrant rights. She became a reverend soon after graduating from Berkeley, after being inspired by the faith-based activism she’d seen there.

She has been a part of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity since 2009, working as a program director to teach dozens of congregations across Northern California how to become sanctuary congregations, through education, outreach and skill-building. In 2009, Lee and the Interfaith Movement began holding monthly vigils on the sidewalk outside of the West County Detention Facility to oppose the separation of families, and harsh immigration policies that detained people who had come to the US seeking a better life. They also were advocating for better conditions within the detention center. She became the group’s executive director in 2018.

For Lee, it is important that church congregants demonstrate love rather than fear, which she feels has been used as a tool by politicians. “I think as faith communities, that whole thing where Jesus talks about ‘Do not fear’ all the time, is how do we walk people through a time of fear and uncertainty in ways that doesn’t scapegoat communities that have nothing to do with the problem?” she said.

“It’s so easy to relinquish the faith we have in God for other forms of false security—like walls, like weapons,” Lee continued, referring to border walls like the one Trump wants to build to keep out immigrants and refugees from Mexico and Central America. “Because that’s not what God is calling us into. God is calling us into trust. The faith communities—we really have to help speak directly into that. And how do we be in solidarity with people with so much fear—crossing the border, walking into the desert—oh my God, how do we learn from their faith?”

For Gottlieb, religion and activism have never been separate. The rabbi grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and said that her desire to make the world a more just place began when she was very young. She also said that she was born soon after the Holocaust ended, which meant that she has always been aware of the world’s cruelty and the importance of standing up for justice. In the Jewish community, she said, “Civil rights was valued as something that we should be concerned about. And also the pedagogy around our religious education was asking questions. You know, getting us to think critically.”

Her mother was a puppeteer, Gottlieb said, so as a child she experienced the theater by watching her mother perform, and by acting in shows herself. “I had the opportunity to play a lot of parts,” she said. “And that gives you—at least it gave me—a very broad perspective. Because I could literally play out what it felt like to be in somebody else’s shoes.” Between the ages of 11 and 12, she also spent time traveling through the American south, “coming face to face with segregation,” she recalled. “I remember just being completely shocked, and I really just understood that it was wrong.”

Gottlieb entered pulpit life at age 23, at Temple Beth Or of the Deaf in New York City. In 1981, she became the first woman ordained in the Jewish Renewal Movement. Soon after, she moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she lived for the next two decades, co-founding Congregation Nahalat Shalom. She has spent most of her life advocating for women’s rights, and a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an ongoing struggle for land ownership and independence between Israelis and Palestinians that began in the mid-20th Century. She has traveled multiple times to Palestine to witness and protests Israel’s ongoing occupation. She said her approach is grounded in nonviolence. “From the time I began working on Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation in 1966, I came to see that Jews are also tempted to ensure their security and safety by military strength. As a woman and a rabbi, I reject this solution,” she wrote in a statement for the Jewish Women’s Archive in 2015.

Some of Gottlieb’s activism has focused on indigenous rights. She participated in the Standing Rock protests that began in early 2016 as a response to the energy company Dakota Access Pipeline plan to build an oil pipeline that would cross beneath Lake Oahe and the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Many members of the indigenous Standing Rock tribe saw as a threat to the region’s clean water, and a disruption of ancient burial ground.

“I think practice is an important concept,” said Gottlieb, when asked about how her faith sustains her work on immigration. “Faith sometimes implies that you have to believe something. Practice is based on values that you wish to manifest from moment to moment. And that requires daily practice.”

“I did not get to where I am going by just staying in my apartment and thinking about these things,” she added. “It was by going to Standing Rock, and going to Palestine again and again. Taking my students into jail, going to the frontline.”

She paused for a moment to reflect. “But it does require thick skin. And a soft heart.”

Gottlieb finds plenty of teachings in Jewish law that support her stance on helping immigrants. “Thirty-six times in the Torah it says don’t mistreat or economically mistreat the stranger, because you were strangers in the land that oppressed you,” Gottlieb said. “And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself’ is not just about how you feel about your neighbor, but how you treat your neighbor.”

She added that she finds the current administration’s response to immigrants particularly alarming. “The separation of families, the elimination of asylum status, the further militarization of the border, the use of troops, using tear gas on children, separation of families and children and a host of brutal policies are all disturbing and must be resisted with all our strength,” she wrote in an email to Oakland North a few days before she was set to head to the southern border to offer support to the migrants attempting to cross into the US.

Gottlieb connected with Lee after moving to the Bay Area in 2013, and they’ve worked together ever since, advocating together through events hosted by Lee’s Interfaith organization, including their trip to Sacramento to ask for pardons for Cambodian refugees. Interfaith’s work often overlaps with a network called Oakland Community Organizations, or OCO. This group engages congregations to provide legal services for immigrants, host “Know Your Rights” trainings, assist students with DACA enrollment and fund mental health resources for youth. They also operate a “rapid response hotline” for people who are either confronted by immigration agents or have witnessed someone getting detained and need help. The hotline connects people with Centro Legal de la Raza, which provides free legal representation to detained undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.

Sam Davis, a member of Kehilla Synagogue, is a former OCO board member and one of many active members of the synagogue’s immigration committee. Currently, he is the coordinator of one of their accompaniment teams, which assist 14 immigrant families with housing, tutoring, emotional support and anything else they might need.

Davis grew up in New York, a native of Queens. In 1990, he moved to the Bay Area to attend UC Berkeley, where he studied math. Though his family was not part of a temple growing up, his mom is Jewish, and they celebrated important holidays at home, like the Passover Seder. “Being Jewish is not just a religion, it’s a culture,” Davis said. “I feel very at home with other Jews. There’s just a lot of humor, the way of looking at the world, values and what you see as important.”

As a Berkeley student, Davis got involved with Cop Watch, which worked to reform police relationships with the homeless community in South Berkeley. This was in 1992, shortly following the riots in Los Angeles after four police officers were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King. With Cop Watch, Davis worked as a news writer. He said that he and members of the group would generally “go around with a video camera and tape interactions” between the homeless people and police officers on Shattuck and Telegraph Avenue. Recording these types of interactions he now realizes was a “weird thing to do back then, but sort of prophetic” of current social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, which also works to document instances of police brutality.

For the last 15 years, Davis and his family have been attending Kehilla Synagogue on and off, starting with the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Once his son started getting more curious about Judaism, Davis and his wife began reconsidering their relationship with their religion, and got more involved, sending their son to Kehilla’s Hebrew school and eventually becoming active in the synagogue’s social justice efforts. After Trump won the election in 2016, and seeing the anti-immigrant sentiment expressed throughout this campaign, Davis felt compelled to re-join the activist world in a way he hadn’t before. After the election I felt really guilty, like, I haven’t been that involved,” he said. So he reached out to a friend at OCO to see how he could help.

Part of his motivation was his faith’s deep history with religious persecution. “For Jews, this is a scary climate that we’re seeing. It just feels really familiar to us how ugly things can get how fast,” he said. Davis added that because of their history, Jews also understand the plight of immigrants who have had to flee their home to seek a better life. “We were cast out of Israel 2,000 years ago, and we’ve been wandering ever since,” he said. “So I think it’s something that’s vivid in our history.”

For the first few months after the election, he helped out with OCO’s “Know Your Rights” forums, making flyers and acting as a translator. Davis recounted a story that he often shared at the forums, about his grandfather, who came to England after fleeing Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II.  “We don’t see my grandfather as bad, for being this penniless refugee or lying on immigration paperwork to migrate,” Davis said. “He’s a hero in our family because he was able to get out.”

He paused. “And so it’s just telling people at those forums, ‘You guys are going to be heroes of this story, because your grandkids are going to tell this story that your grandma survived the years of Trump.’”

Davis said that the forums were mostly organized by immigrants in their own churches. At each, a speaker would talk to attendees about their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, and then they would get to talk to immigration lawyers one-on-one. “I wanted to help as much as I could, but I felt out of place, as the only white guy, Jewish guy,” he said. Eventually, he realized that didn’t feel like people necessarily needed his help, and that it was better for them to organize their own space. Instead, he thought: I wonder what’s happening in my congregation? What are my people doing about this?

He ended up joining Let Our People Go, a protest group led by Kehilla’s immigration committee, which had started its own protests outside the West County Detention Center in 2017. Some of the organizers were parents Davis knew through Hebrew school. Lee’s organization would have their prayer vigils on Saturdays, and Let Our People Go would have their protests the second Sunday of every month.

Each gathering attracted around 100 people, sometimes more, until the summer of 2018, when Trump and Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy that led to children and parents being separated at the border and detained separately. The protests grew, and on June 30, a national day of action to protest child separation, more than 1,000 people joined Kehilla’s protest outside the detention facility. A few days later, Contra County County Sheriff David Livingston announced that he would end the ICE contract to house federal immigration detainees there—in large part due to the monthly vigils and protests.

***

It’s late November, and Kehilla is holding an annual crafts fair in the synagogue’s lobby to benefit immigrant and refugee families. The Hebrew school is running a class in the basement at the same time, and the fair comes to life after the children are released from classes. They flood the upper gallery of the temple, and Davis, a gentle giant, stands among them watching with amusement. He is stopped several times by friends and acquaintances with kind greetings, wondering about his day and his volunteerism.

Davis stands close by Julie Litwin, the director of the synagogue’s immigration committee. They talk about the caravan of roughly 5,000 migrants from Central America currently en route to the US, and the grassroots effort by the faith-based groups, including Lee’s organization, to travel to the Tijuana-San Diego border to support them.

For now, Davis is focused on making sure the craft fair is a fundraising hit. “Today’s the day. Only two shopping days until Hanukkah,” says Davis to Litwin and Carol Rothman, the woman responsible for the fair. He talks with several other temple members as they make their rounds at the crafts tables, commenting on pieces that catch his eye, chatting pleasantly.

Last year, Rothman started the fair by selling her own glass art, and the congregation’s donations of other homemade items followed. They made $3,500 over the span of two days, which was enough to fund most of their annual budget. This year, they’re hoping for similar success. Portions of this money will fund the immigration committee’s accompaniment teams. It will help them provide housing and legal fees for families, accompany them to ICE hearings and finance other resources that make their transition to the US easier.

Davis makes his way to the most popular table of the night. The table at the front of the gallery features the possessions and creations of congregation member Irene McPhail, who passed away from cancer earlier this year. Her daughters donated five boxes of her belongings to the fair. McPhail was from South Africa, and grew up during Apartheid, when she first became an activist. After moving to the US, she became a therapist and worked in immigration reform. Her husband, David McPhail, a minister, worked with Lee to lead prayer vigils at the West County Detention Facility. Most of the people at Kehilla have family who are immigrants, Rothman says, which is why so many of their members care so deeply about immigration reform.

As the fair comes to a close, Davis helps Litwin and Rothman pack up the remaining crafts into boxes. “Tentative total!” exclaims the fair’s cashier, Leanne Grossman. The three are delighted with her reveal: They’ve made $2,275 in one night, more than halfway towards their goal. “That’s more than we raised on the first day of the fair last year!” Rothman says.

***

In the Jewish tradition, Davis says, there is an awareness that the system has always been broken. Still, his role at the synagogue is linked to his desire to support people and see positive change. “I feel a lot of activists tend to be a little naive about how easy this is going to be, or what the struggle looks like. But I think, as Jews, we kind of bring a historical perspective of like, it’s always been this way. These problems have always existed,” Davis said.

His synagogue’s immigration committee is still strategizing about what their work will look like in the new year. Litwin and Rabbi David Cooper, former head rabbi of Kehilla until last year, are part of the delegation heading to the border to support the migrant caravan, which is being organized by the American Friends Service Committee, a national Quaker group rallying for immigration reform. For Davis, the new year will be spent continuing to do accompaniment work and trying to support Lee’s group and their prayer vigils. Now that the Richmond center will no longer be housing detainees, they plan to move their protest to ICE Headquarters in San Francisco, which will begin on December 14.

Davis mentioned that the groups have talked about holding a protest or vigil outside of Yuba County Jail in Yuba City because there are undocumented people detained there. Even though it is a long drive—almost two hours—Davis said that this could be beneficial to families of those detained who are scared to make that trip on their own.

Meanwhile, Gottlieb is focusing her energy on advocating for the Cambodian refugees slated for deportations, and traveling to the border to protect Central America asylum seekers. She says her lifetime of activism has taught her the value of making connections, and recognizing that all struggles are related. “In my years of being a rabbi, I have come to understand more deeply the profound interconnectedness of all human rights struggles,” she said. “We need coalitions of broad diversity. We need the entire range of creativity and wisdom gained through the struggle for human rights throughout the world. We are not separate one from another.”

Lee has also spent the last few months strategizing about how best help those seeking refuge in the US. She said she believes that human suffering is not inevitable, and that we are always called to make the world a little better, no matter what.

“Oppression—especially racialized oppression—is part of a larger historical pattern,” Lee said. “But I see it as cyclical pattern, more like a spiral. It’s not ever exactly the same. We don’t come back to exactly the same point. But we keep fighting because we are committed to the human rights and dignity of people. Our ‘wins’ are in the actions we take each day to help others, shape history and change ourselves in the process.”

On December 14, this article was updated to reflect the following corrections: to clarify Davis’ role on the immigration committee, to correct the country his father immigrated from and to correct the name of Kehilla’s former head rabbi. 

On December 15, this article was updated to reflect the following correction: to correct Irene McPhail’s husband’s name. 

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