by Barbara Sherf
For six hours last Friday, more than 100 area residents from more than a dozen congregations prayed at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill as part of the citywide Sanctuary in the Streets Vigil.
Organized by the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) of Philadelphia, the evening began with a procession of song as participants carried banners with slogans like “Change the Immigration Laws” and “Love is the Only Law” in both English and Spanish.
Philadelphia’s status as a “sanctuary city” makes it a relatively safe haven for undocumented immigrants. Sanctuary cities like Philadelphia do not fully cooperate with the federal government when it comes to immigration enforcement and can shelter undocumented immigrants (and other non-citizens) from deportation.*
According to the web site, NSM’s mission “is to build community across faith, ethnicity and class in our work to end injustices against immigrants regardless of immigration status, express radical welcome for all and ensure that values of dignity, justice and hospitality are lived out in practice and upheld in policy.”
Following a processional by participants down the center aisle, Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill’s Pastor Cynthia Jarvis offered a welcoming prayer at the beginning of the vigil but left to be with her father as her mother had been buried earlier that day.
An immigrant from Mexico, Aurora Camacho de Schmidt of the St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Germantown did much of the translating through the evening and shared her views.
“Most undocumented immigrants presently in the country arrived at a time of an expanding economy and have held service jobs. They are definitely not criminals. Deportation will seriously harm not only deported individuals and their families but also the communities of citizens they belong to. This interfaith prayer service is an expression of solidarity with all immigrants, but especially the undocumented workers of the City of Philadelphia,” said Camacho de Schmidt.
Rabbis Linda Holtzman and Michael Ramberg of Tikkun Olam Chavurah in Mt. Airy performed a Jewish service for welcoming the Sabbath. Rabbi Holtzman was a founding member of NSM nine years ago.
“As a Jew I would not be standing here before you if my ancestors had not immigrated from Russian and Poland. Much of my family was not able to leave and died in the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Holtzman.
“No human being is illegal,” said Chestnut Hill resident Philip Moore, who had heard about the evening vigil through the Chestnut Hill Religious Society of Friends.
Elise Zeidler of Northeast Philadelphia and a member of St. Vincent’s, came after a long work week “to support all of those who need our love and support, both immigrants and other minorities.”
John Bergen, Assistant Pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church, led the procession playing guitar. “Vigils remind us of the power of prayer and community and guide us through difficult times like we have seen in the past few weeks,” said Rev. Bergen.
Honduras native Maria Turcios prayed in Spanish as Rabbi Ramberg translated.
“We believe in God’s power and put faith in God and invite everyone who believes in justice to know we will not be complicity with hate and racism,” Turcios said. “We pray for our government and our leaders so that hearts of stone may be softened to hearts of love. We pray for racism to be defeated and replaced by love. We pray for all those who have been deported and separated from their families. We pray for those sentenced to three years in prison for entering this country illegally.”
Organizers noted that there was another vigil in West Philadelphia on Friday night and urged participants to spread the word about two other vigils in September leading up to an Oct. 27 vigil at Philadelphia City Hall.
Organizer Paul Witte said the timing of the vigil was on the mark.
“It was providential that the first vigil has occurred at a time of national tumult over what happened in Charlottesville. We NSM members at St. Vincent de Paul parish have struggled with how to integrate our concern for immigrants and the pressing need for justice for African Americans. Our parish has a sizeable African American membership but few undocumented immigrants, so why have we chosen to include immigrant justice in our scope?
“Isn’t the injustice suffered by African Americans enough? The coincidence of Charlottesville and our series of NSM vigils help us to tie together the injustices suffered by both groups. In essence, those injustices are caused by the same societal disorder, white supremacy. I hope our NSM vigils and other efforts help forge greater unity between immigrants and African Americans.”
For more information on future vigils go to www.sanctuaryphiladelphia.org and sign up for the newsletter. Barbara Sherf can be reached at www.CommunicationsPro.com.
* From Lauren Hitt in Mayor Kenney’s office, the city of Philadelphia does not actively shelter immigrants. “In Philadelphia, [Sanctuary City] largely refers to the fact that no officer or City employee is permitted to ask for immigration status,” Hitt said “However, we cannot interfere with an ICE raid.”