ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Some religious communities are sheltering or preparing to shelter people at risk of deportation as the Trump administration cracks down on unauthorized immigration. From member station WGBH in Boston, Gabrielle Emanuel has more.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: On a narrow side street in Cambridge, Mass., music spills out of University Lutheran church. Inside the front door are rainbow Adirondack chairs. And if you head up the back stairs, you'll see a room where there will soon be...
KARI JO VERHULST: A trundle bed.
EMANUEL: That's Pastor Kari Jo Verhulst. Her church is converting Sunday school classrooms to living quarters with the help of a diverse group of nearby Christian and Jewish congregations.
VERHULST: This is bedding. So lots and lots of bedding and towels.
EMANUEL: With a half-dozen air mattresses and a futon lined up, the church is getting ready to host undocumented immigrants who fear deportation. In Denver, a congregation is already hosting an undocumented person avoiding immigration enforcement. And in Los Angeles, the Episcopal church there has declared itself a sanctuary diocese. U.S. immigration officials have a policy of staying away from what are called sensitive locations, places like schools, hospitals and houses of worship. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson says this policy remains in effect under the new administration. Pastor Verhulst hopes it holds. But she says another, older policy comes to mind.
VERHULST: OK, so this is the Book of Numbers.
EMANUEL: Pulling out her Bible, she flips to the Old Testament.
VERHULST: (Reading) You shall designate three cities beyond the Jordan and three cities in the land of Canaan to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall serve as a refuge for the Israelites.
EMANUEL: In these cities, people were beyond the reach of law enforcement. And it wasn't just the Israelites. In ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, temples were sanctuaries.
KARL SHOEMAKER: It's a fairly natural progression for Christian churches to claim the same ability to protect fugitives that others had.
EMANUEL: Karl Shoemaker is a professor at the University of Wisconsin and an expert in the history of sanctuary law. He says for centuries, congregations have provided for those on the run. In America, churches were key stations on the Underground Railroad. And more recently, in the 1980s, a network of churches helped people flee wars in Central America.
SHOEMAKER: These churches are certainly situating themselves within a very long - a 2,000-year-old tradition.
EMANUEL: Just a few blocks from University Lutheran is the Old Cambridge Baptist Church. It, too, has a history of sheltering people, people like Magdalena Rivas.
MAGDALENA RIVAS: And here my bedroom. I this side.
EMANUEL: In 1984, Rivas escaped El Salvador's bloody civil war. She was undocumented, so congregants here took turns staying with her. Beneath big blue stained-glass windows, they kept watch for immigration authorities. Rivas says one place in the church was particularly soothing.
RIVAS: You see right there?
EMANUEL: She peers into the baptismal basin where she used to bathe.
RIVAS: Here your feeling is safe.
EMANUEL: It was safe in there?
RIVAS: Yeah. You know, you're relaxing. You're going - feeling Jesus with you, all this stuff.
EMANUEL: It was there, submerged in the waters of the baptistry, that she felt the safest. Magdalena Rivas eventually received political asylum and citizenship. She says she feels lucky and glad that there were houses of worship to shelter her then and so many others today. For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA SONG, "PUZZLES")
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