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GR Rapid Response to ICE begins campaign to get more faith communities to declare themselves a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants

May 28, 2020

In March of 2018, a UCC church, Joy Like a River, declared itself a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. At that event, there were several dozen area religious leaders who came in support of that declaration.

This declaration of sanctuary was the first time that someone has become a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, since the Koinonia House did it in 1986 in Grand Rapids

However, Joy Like a River is the only faith community that has publicly declared themselves as a sanctuary, in a region of the state that is known for being deeply religious. There are an estimated 800 churches in Kent County, which means that only 1 out of 800 is willing to put faith into action on behalf of undocumented immigrants.

This reality has led the grassroots group, GR Rapid Response to ICE, to begin a campaign to encourage more faith communities to declare themselves as sanctuary. This campaign is centered around the 800 to 1 ratio of churches to sanctuaries in this community.

We spoke with Karen Meyers, one of the volunteer organizers with GR Rapid Response to ICE about the campaign.

GRIID – How do you react to the fact that only 1 church in the Grand Rapids area is willing to be a sanctuary?

Karen – My reaction is some surprise, as well as disappointment and anger. Grand Rapids is almost jokingly known for its density of churches, and you don’t have to spend much time here before someone talks to you about their faith. In a city with so many Catholic churches as well as a large, vibrant immigrant community (many of whom are Catholic), it seems only natural that churches–particularly Catholic churches and other Christian churches that profess to do as Jesus did–would step up to offer sanctuary to immigrants in danger. The Catholic church has been pretty awful in many respects, but it also has a tradition of participating in peace and justice movements. 

I’m not totally surprised that there aren’t more sanctuary churches in Grand Rapids, however. I’ve come to realize that West Michigan Nice can mean that you preach kindness and love, but putting those words into action isn’t always done.

GRIID – GR Rapid Response approached the Catholic Diocese back in March, wanting to talk about offering Sanctuary and other support for undocumented immigrants. What was their reaction?

Karen – The diocese initially responded and suggested a meeting date of May 1, which at best betrays a cluelessness on their part about the community, or at worst, is an intentional insult. May 1 is May Day, and has been the annual date of the Día Sin Inmigrantes/Day Without Immigrants march. We reminded the diocese of that and suggested a better date, but despite multiple attempts at contact on our part, have not heard back from them again.

GRIID – What message do you think it sends to the undocumented community for faith communities to declare themselves a sanctuary?

I think it tells them that they are welcome here. That they are valued, respected human beings, who deserve to live and enjoy happiness and safety together with their families and not separated from them, just as we do. That people have the right to cross borders (borders that once crossed them), in order to make a new life for themselves or to flee the dangerous conditions in their countries that the US has had a hand in creating.

For those interested exploring the possibility of their faith community becoming a sanctuary and what that entails, you can contact GR Rapid Response to ICE at or leave a message on their Facebook page.

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