Columnists Joan O’Brien and Nancy Sardeson: Finding sanctuary at Unitarian Society

  • Irida Kakhtiranova in her room at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, where she has been in sanctuary since April 6. A Russian immigrant facing deportation, she is the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three American children. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/15/2018 9:46:23 PM

It has been more than two months since Irida Kakhtiranova moved into a small basement room, formerly the meeting space for the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence youth group.

In December, the adult members of this congregation voted overwhelmingly to declare this building a sanctuary. This means we opened 220 Main St. to someone in danger of imminent deportation so he or she could safely make the case for staying in this country, a land of immigrants, that they, too, call home.

Without hesitation, our youth group voted to give up their space so our bustling building could accommodate someone living here around the clock. And on April 6, Irida moved in.

It has been a massive undertaking, relying on a huge volunteer squad to do an immense amount of work: install a shower in our women’s bathroom; outfit a room capable of accommodating Irida and her three visiting children and husband; shop for groceries; bring in home-cooked meals; ferry her children for visits; maintain a 24/7 accompaniment presence in our building, and more.

This effort has stretched our congregation, and yet, we know we can do it because it feels right — and we are not alone. Members of nearly a dozen area faith institutions have committed to work with us and are sharing the work. The Pioneer Valley Workers Center is walking down this road with us. Area residents who have read about our efforts in the newspaper continue to send in financial contributions without being asked, and have signed up to help.

Many people have asked how long this will go on. The answer is that we don’t know. Every immigration case is different. What they have in common is that they require painstaking research, patience, money and a lot of time.

Many people have also asked: Is this sustainable? We have committed to be with Irida for this long haul. And just as Irida can’t do it alone, neither can we.

We are asking for help from the many people who feel as we do: Taking a mother away from her young children and a country she has done nothing but contribute to for 18 years is not who we are. Since its founding, the United States of America has not only welcomed, but was made immeasurably richer by, the immigrants who came to our shores.

The opportunity to spend time with Irida and her family over these past two months has affirmed our decision to become a sanctuary congregation, an act in keeping with fundamental principles of Unitarian Universalism: a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, that all human relations should be governed by justice, equity and compassion and an abiding commitment to social justice.

We are grateful for the support our sanctuary effort has received from city leaders and community members, just as we are grateful for all the support Lucio Perez and his sanctuary congregation, First Congregational Church in Amherst, have received. The Rev. Vicki Kemper and Mayor David Narkewicz, and Cooley Dickinson Health Care President Joanne Marqusee set an example for all our community leaders when they helped escort Lucio back to First Church after his emergency surgery during May.

We hope that no one thinks that the situations that Lucio and Irida find themselves in are rare, because they are not. There are others threatened by deportation. Faith communities considering taking this step are invited to consider how they can support our brothers and sisters.

Meantime, anyone can help with the Unitarian Society in Northampton effort by visiting, where you will find a sanctuary tab with a drop-down link on how to volunteer. You will also find a drop-down tab for contributions, explaining how to make financial contributions, either to Irida’s YouCaring site, or to the Unitarian Society’s sanctuary fund, by writing a check to Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence with “sanctuary fund” in the memo line.

We believe that a grave injustice is being perpetrated based on a lie that immigrants are not the heart and soul of this nation. We invite you to join us in standing and working on the side of love in whatever way feels right to you.

Joan O’Brien, of Northampton, and Nancy Sardeson, of Amherst, are members of the congregation at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, and part of its sanctuary team.

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