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Editorial: Three area churches’ commitment to faith and humanity

  • Margaret Sawyer, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and a pastor with the United Church of Christ, at center, speaks April 10, during a press conference at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, which is providing Russian-born immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova sanctuary from deportation. Faith-based leaders and community organizers listen around Sawyer. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Friday, April 13, 2018

Three area churches are providing a powerful antidote to President Donald Trump’s harsh policies that are ripping apart the fabric of America — a country that traditionally has welcomed immigrants.

The First Congregational Church of Amherst, the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence and the South Congregational United Church of Christ in Springfield are providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants who face deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The latest is the Unitarian Society, which April 6 took in Irida Kakhtiranova, a Russian-born immigrant who has been in the United States since 2003. Kakhtiranova, 36, a restaurant worker, is the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three children who are citizens, a 10-year-old son and 4-year-old twin girls. After being ordered this month to appear at an ICE office with her passport or risk arrest, Kakhtiranova chose to take sanctuary while she fights deportation.

ICE is avoiding enforcement activities at “sensitive locations,” including houses of worship, hospitals and schools.

Kakhtiranova joins Lucio Perez in Amherst and Gisella Collazo in Springfield in sanctuary. Perez, who has been confined since Oct. 19 to a meeting room converted to a bedroom at the Amherst church, issued a statement supporting Kakhtiranova.

“Taking sanctuary is not an easy decision, but with the community we have here to support us, it is a far better way to be in this fight than to do it when you are far away from your family and your children,” Perez said. “I want Irida to know that she needs to embrace faith and hope.”

Talking with reporters Tuesday at the Unitarian Society, Kakhtiranova fought backs tears when she was asked how she and her family were feeling. “We’re OK,” she responded. “It’s been a tough week, and when I did get in here the first two days, I pretty much just slept and rested. I finally stopped looking at the door and window in fear, without shaking.”

It helps to have the strong support offered by the Unitarian Society, in collaboration with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center. Dozens of volunteers, some from other congregations in Northampton, are helping with security, grocery shopping, cooking meals and other needs. About a dozen people attended an “accompaniment volunteer” training Tuesday at the Unitarian Society at 220 Main St. They will work in shifts, including overnight, to make sure that Kakhtiranova is never alone in the building.

“This is not easy. It’s not easy for her, and I imagine it will not be easy down the road,” said Nancy Sardeson, a volunteer team coordinator. “And that’s part of our challenge that we’re learning as well — how to support her … we are here to meet her needs.”

The Unitarian Society began considering becoming a sanctuary congregation in September, and its members voted overwhelmingly in December to offer a physical safe space.

The Rev. Janet Bush said, “Ours is a faith tradition that requires us to side with justice, equality and compassion in human relations. It is a faith tradition that honors the biblical prophets who sided with the poor, and that honors Jesus’ radical teachings on behalf of the oppressed. It is a faith tradition that offers welcome and offers hope.”

We commend the supportive statement issued by Mayor David J. Narkewicz, who pledged that his administration “will not interfere with the congregation’s principled act of conscience.”

He added, “I support the right of the Unitarian Society or any of our faith-based communities to offer sanctuary. Providing aid and comfort to those in need is a central tenet of their faith, the free exercise of which is a bedrock tenet of our U.S. Constitution.”

Narkewicz stands in contrast to Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, who ordered city inspectors into the South Congregational Church after Collazo took refuge there, and threatened to strip it of its tax-exempt status. The inspectors found only minor violations and the Springfield City Council subsequently voted to prohibit municipal officials from interfering with religious freedoms at places of worship.

Narkewicz has it right when he directs his ire against Trump and “his hateful and divisive immigration policies that run counter to our proud history as a nation founded and built by immigrants.”

Though it is shameful that three hard-working people have been uprooted from their everyday lives and forced into sanctuary churches, it is fortunate that they are amid supportive communities.