Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood recently joined the 1,100-plus churches nationwide that are sanctuary churches for undocumented immigrants seeking asylum.

"Given what's occurring, you feel so helpless. If this is one thing our church could do to help, it feels like the right thing to do," said the Rev. Barbara Gadon, Eliot Chapel's lead minister. "Our congregation stands with undocumented people in protesting the immoral laws and practices that tear families apart. Eliot Chapel is prepared to shelter an undocumented person or family vulnerable to deportation if we are approached to do so."

She added that congregants encourage other faith communities to assist refugees as well.

Eliot Unitarian's 550-plus members at 100 S. Taylor Ave. voted on May 20 to become a sanctuary church. They believe they are the St. Louis region's second congregation to do so, joining Christ Church UCC in Maplewood in the initiative.

On Tuesday, Pastor Betsy Happel of Kirkwood United Church of Christ, 1603 Dougherty Ferry Road, announced the church would became St. Louis' third sanctuary church and congregation.

The assumption is that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials will not enter churches to arrest refugees living there. Prior immigration policy leading up to this year required enforcement officers to avoid deportation activities in "sensitive locations," defined as schools, hospitals and places of worship.

But Gadon said churches now are the last, respected safe spots for undocumented immigrants, with reports of U.S. schools, hospitals and courtrooms already being "violated" by immigration enforcers.

She said Eliot Chapel leaders formalized their position by signing the Declaration of Sacred Resistance, the constituent document of the St. Louis Coalition for Sanctuary. The coalition is a partnership of multiethnic and multifaith individuals, religious leaders, congregations and community organizations.

Volunteers at Eliot also transformed a portion of their chapel into living space.

However, taking a public stand is not new for Eliot Chapel. For nearly 200 weeks, Eliot Chapel's Social Justice in Action Team has held weekly vigils to publicly witness opposition to racism and hate.

"We need strong hearts, open minds, and willing givers to create a haven of support and harmony for the next sanctuary seeker. We don't know when our neighbor will call on us for shelter, but we want to be ready when they do," said Paula Fulks, Immigration Justice Team chairwoman at Eliot.

Fulks said Eliot Chapel congregants stand proudly on the side of those who believe "all people are my brothers and sisters" and those who refuse to retreat into the darkness of fear.

The decision to declare the 59-year-old chapel a sanctuary coincides with aggressive and controversial U.S. immigration enforcement actions taken with refugees fleeing Central America based on a new presidential-declared "zero tolerance" policy.

"Part of it is we want to communicate to the Latino community that not everybody is going along with this. We want them to know that we see them and they are not alone," explained Gadon.

Eliot Chapel members' involvement in the new sanctuary movement actually began in early 2017 through the St. Louis Coalition, for which members pledged to participate in a spectrum of solidarity actions. Those steps included welcoming undocumented people, advocating to stop deportations, assisting with legal clinics, and physically sheltering immigrants in danger of immediate deportation.

In October 2017, Christ Church UCC became the first member of the St. Louis Coalition to provide physical sanctuary when they welcomed Rene "Alex" Garcia to keep him from being separated from his U.S. citizen wife and their five U.S. citizen children.

Gadon, and a number of Eliot Chapel members, have been helping Christ Church UCC in supporting Garcia.

"We witnessed how valuable sanctuary is for this one family. Knowing there are as many as 50,000 undocumented people living in the St. Louis-metro area, we hope a broad community of congregations are willing to protect those who face deportation," she said.

The St. Louis Coalition for Sanctuary is a project of nonprofit St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee On Latin America, which was founded in 1977.

"These are matters of grave moral concern. Many of the families and individuals who've arrived to our borders seeking asylum or pursuing a better life have left dangerous places, pervasive violence, rampant poverty, and, often, the threat of death," said St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee On Latin America Executive Director Sara John.

"We must not forget these conditions are the direct results of decades of dangerous U.S. policy and intervention in Latin America. Our values call us into action," she continued.