I Was a Stranger: New York Activists Stage a Lenten Action for Sanctuary

Every Friday in Lent, a group of activists has stood outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan with a large banner reading “When did we see you a stranger and make you feel welcome?” The line is from Matthew 25, and the activists have also chosen Matthew 25 as their alias. The strangers being referred to in this action are the many undocumented Americans being targeted by the Trump administration.

There are close to a million undocumented immigrants living in New York according to Pew Research, yet Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is also the Archbishop of New York, has done little to offer those immigrants reassurance that the Catholic church will stand up for them. In a Daily News op/ed, Dolan described immigrants as “a gift” to New York and stated that Trump has shown a lack of concern for immigrants. And New York’s Archbishop has said nothing about deportation.

Dolan’s language has indeed been mild compared to other Catholic leaders in America. Cardinal Blaise Cupich in Chicago recently told priests that if I.C.E. arrives at a church without a warrant, they should be turned away. Cupich added that “the Archdiocese of Chicago supports the dignity of all persons without regard to immigration status.” Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who leads the archdiocese of Newark, stated that mass deportations are an “inhuman policy” that “destroys families and communities.” Tobin also accompanied an immigrant threatened with deportation by I.C.E. to a court date, and stated that “we are here today to bear witness and to appeal to the conscience of our nation to spare this man, and countless others like him, whose only offense was to seek a better life for his family.”

Bishop Robert MacElroy of San Diego described the travel ban as “shameful” and “rooted in xenophobia and religious prejudice,” and called on Catholics to resist being silent about it. And Bishop Jamie Soto of Sacramento was even more explicit in his call for the church to take action. Soto referred back to the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when churches housed immigrants fleeing violence in Central America.  “Besides the dramatic gesture of somebody living in the church,” Soto said, “you had refugee communities pulling together as brothers and sisters in the faith and supporting each other.” He added that the church should be “true to its values” and offer sanctuary in the event of mass deportations. Even San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, widely known as an ultra-conservative “culture warrior,” promised that immigrants in his diocese would “know their rights” and be “protected.”

The Matthew 25 activists in New York hope Dolan will offer the same.

One source I spoke to, a housing attorney and lay Catholic, told me she got together with a group before Lent, and says they were “thinking about what it means to repent and follow the gospel.” Trump’s inauguration in February offered some painful visuals of Dolan, “with no awareness this is a frightening time for this parishioners,” sporting a “big goofy grin” at the inaugural prayer service, “as if this was a joyful event.” That, along with the knowledge that a majority of white Catholics voted for Trump, led these lay Catholics to consider a Lent action that would repent for that vote, and “try to change course.”

The previous action by this group during Advent of 2015 was focused on homelessness, and asked the archdiocese to consider offering up some of its closed churches as housing for New York’s many homeless citizens. Many of those closed churches are still vacant, so the same could be done now for the undocumented. According to my source, “the church should be in clear opposition to the state in this moment about deportation,” and that there should be “some sort if opposition taken, not just statements about ‘all are welcome.’” She suggested that Dolan should consider what Cupich, Tobin, MacElroy and Soto are doing and saying, and consider “going to hearings, sheltering people, there’s no skin in the game right now [for Dolan], no loss and no hardship.”

The Matthew 25 activists decided to do something to get Dolan’s attention. Every Friday since the beginning of Lent, they’ve stood in frigid weather outside of Saint Patrick’s with their long banner and additional signs reading “Defy I.C.E, Offer Sanctuary.” The action has been a prayerful one; keeping Lent’s focus on repentance in mind, the activists pray the rosary, to which they’ve added prayers for the undocumented, and sing the litany of the saints, asking the saints to pray with them for those threatened with deportation.

Many New Yorkers who have encountered the protest have been supportive. They have joined in the prayers, filmed the action, and offered thumbs up and smiles. But the group’s daily tweets to Dolan have netted no response. Their press release, which called on Dolan to denounce I.C.E. raids and protect his parishioners, has met with silence from the cardinal as well. And staff members at St.Patrick’s have shooed the group off the steps onto the sidewalk.

When Lent ends this Thursday, thousands of Catholics will go to masses where they re-enact Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. On Holy Thursday last year, Pope Francis washed the feet of refugees, including Muslims, Hindus, and Copts. Cardinal Dolan is scheduled to preside at Saint Patrick’s Holy Thursday service this week. The feet of undocumented immigrants are battered by their flights from violence, poverty, and war. Right now, they are also ready to run from the possibility of deportation and the possibility of yet another separation from their families.

Whose feet will Cardinal Dolan, so willing to pray over President Trump, choose to wash? When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he told them that “no servant is greater than his master.” When Dolan returns to his $30 million mansion after the service or offers a “pinstripe mass” for CEOs, he may want to keep this in mind.