I Thought I Was Just Helping Others

This service was presented by members of the Sanctuary Steering Committee, who through their combined experience have been members of First Unitarian for over 100 years.

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Sermon Text

My Parents’ Story by Jim Cowan

Presented by Sarah Eltinge

In 1938, Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered a night of destruction of Jewish businesses and synagogues throughout Germany. Many Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps for no reason. The night was called Kristallnacht –  the night of broken glass. It was a warning to the Jews of what was to come.

International outrage prompted Hitler to let 10,000 Jewish children leave Germany.  They traveled alone without their parents. This was the Kinder Transport – the children’s transport. 

Some children came to the UK. They arrived by train with a small suitcase, a label on their coat saying who they were, and no place to go. The British people were asked to take them into their homes.

My parents took in two children, the teenage son and 10-year-old daughter of the former chief prosecutor of Berlin.

My father was a journalist and understood Hitler’s plans, that war was coming, and Britain might lose. German plans for the invasion of Britain included construction of a concentration camp outside Manchester, the city where my family lived.

If the Germans had conquered England, my quote/unquote “Jew-loving Aryan” parents would’ve ended up in that concentration camp and the two children would’ve been gassed.

My parents did not see themselves as Jew-lovers, or Aryans; they were simply Good Samaritans who helped someone in need.

Great Britain won the Battle of Britain. Hitler called off the Nazi invasion of the UK, and Germany went on to lose the war. The two refugee children lived through the war safely with my parents. They later emigrated to Israel where they raised families of children, many grandchildren, and many, many great-grandchildren.

My parents’ story is one of small acts of courage and kindness to people who had been cast out and, through no fault of their own, were dependent on the kindness of strangers. Such acts reverberate down through the ages. They confront evil, and they bring great and lasting joy into the world.

Sermon Audio

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Our Experience Creating a Sanctuary Space at First U

by Katherine Ahlquist

Hello, my name is Katherine Ahlquist, and I am the chair of the Sanctuary Steering Committee. When I brought up the suggestion at a Side with Love meeting that we should build a space for sanctuary here at First Unitarian, I had no idea how difficult a task it would be. Knowing the atmosphere in the United States was going to get increasingly hostile towards immigrants, and wanting to do something to help, this seemed to be a small, but significant way to make a difference.

A committee of nine people was formed, who were determined to create a space where someone in danger of deportation would be able to seek safe shelter. Protected from ICE, they would be able to work towards citizenship or take the time needed to decide what their next move would be.

As our current president started his term, we educated ourselves and the congregation, learning together what it would mean to hold someone in sanctuary. We spoke with people during coffee hour finding out their concerns and doing our best to answer them. We held congregational conversations where people voiced their opinions about the idea of sanctuary.  We discovered that there are those among us who are first- or second-generation Americans, some who are related to Holocaust survivors, some who left difficulties behind in other countries. Many people could relate to the complexities of immigration in very personal ways. In listening to the stories of our congregation, I marveled at the diversity and unity that exists here at First U.

April 2017, members of the First Unitarian Church of Providence voted overwhelmingly to become a Sanctuary church. Now the work of this committee would really begin.

Not only did we have to create a place where people could comfortably live, we needed a guide for how to do sanctuary. There was no book on how this could be done, no Google page for us to refer to. Fortunately, we had been in contact with a group in Massachusetts, the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition, who shared with us their guide for sanctuary.  We used this as a template to help us develop our own manual and training guide.

At the same time, we worked on getting the backing of the city of Providence. Mayor Elorza had already declared Providence a Sanctuary City, so we knew that he would be on board, but the path to passing fire safety and zoning requirements was a long one. We were charting new territory, and some officials couldn’t get their head around what we were doing. It took nearly 19 months, but at the end of that time, we had a sanctuary room, a manual, and trained volunteers ready to help us when needed. To our surprise, it was another five months before someone took up residence in our church. On November 1st, 2018, we received a call from a family who needed our help. We met with them the following day and quickly accepted them into sanctuary. Most of their belongings were already packed in their car, and they were relieved when we told them they could move in right away. 

What happened next was exactly what needed to happen. All those people we had spent months finding and training, people from this congregation, students from Brown University, Sisters of Mercy, people from other cities and congregations in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, immediately rallied and responded  to the call that help was needed. Volunteers drove the oldest child in our sanctuary family to pick up items from their apartment, shielding them from their abusive landlord. Word spread quickly, and people rallied to help our family move in, get settled, be fed, and feel at ease. There were two volunteers stationed in the Atrium for five-hour shifts day shifts and overnight, ready to help and alert to anyone who entered the building. And this is where the most amazing part of this whole story started to unfold. As we were building this sanctuary, we never thought about what it would mean to actually have someone here, how that would play out, how that would impact those who were helping. How can you predict such a thing? Very quickly, this community formed. There was a camaraderie amongst the hosts, people from all ages, from different backgrounds and communities, sitting together for hours at a time, talking, reading, just spending time together and getting to know one another. It was a beautiful thing. People looked forward to coming in for their shifts. They felt like they were doing something powerful. Helping other human beings in distress, they were doing it together. It was a beautiful, spiritual connection.

Our lovely sanctuary family stayed with us for two months before deciding to return to Mexico to rebuild their lives there. We were happy they would be reunited as a family, even though we would miss them. As I left the building on Christmas Eve day to drive them to the airport, I said goodbye to the hosts who had spent the night, keeping our family safe. It was a bittersweet goodbye. 

Our sanctuary family was going home and would be reunited with their father. Just like that, our parish house would return to its quiet, business-like atmosphere. No more piano ringing through the air as Danny practiced, or laughter from little Vikki echoing through the Atrium. No Daisy stopping by to say hello, or delicious aroma of freshly made tortillas and hot cocoa, offered with a smile by a grateful Milli. The comfortable companionship of people chatting, sharing food, sitting in silence, reading together, studying together, sharing music – just a memory. But the knowledge of how we came together and made this happen and the joy we found in helping others while creating a beautiful community will live on. And we know that this thing we have built, this sanctuary, will be ready should someone else need our help. We are a strong community, made even stronger through working with the world outside our own church walls, and knowing that together, we can make amazing things happen.

A Letter of Thanks from Milli

Written on December 24, 2019

I wish that all of you know that you can see my eyes filled with joy and a new dawn of thanks to God and thanks for your support, which was an arm around us, that day after day, you searched for a way to have us feel like home.

We will always remember you with love, and you are in our prayers. 

 Thanks because here we learned to smile in the middle of sadness. Thanks for making our way easier.  We are gone, but you are also still in our hearts.

Sermon Audio

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We Said ‘Yes’ by Judy Ortman

Good Morning. I am one of the lucky ones in many, many ways.  Katherine’s determined and tireless leadership and her uncanny ability to stay positive was a powerful motivator for me to stay involved in the Sanctuary work of this congregation for the last few years.  As Katherine pointed out, this work has been rewarding for everyone involved and has given us a way to proactively respond to some of the difficulties our world is facing. The focus of the Sanctuary work must remain fluid and able to respond to the many twists and turns that the people currently in power are imposing.

I am also one of the lucky ones in that I answered an email I received from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) and  Show Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) about 18 months ago with a “yes.”   At the time of the email, my husband and I had been watching significantly too much news about the caravan of people traveling from Central America, through Mexico, in order to request asylum at our border.  Our president depicted these travelers as criminals, hellbent on invading our country.  As we watched tv and read the news, it was hard to imagine the images we saw were of those of criminal invaders.

So – we said “yes” when we were asked if we could sponsor an asylum seeker coming to the US on the caravan in early 2018.  We both felt that we were at a time in our life when giving back was the only responsible and reasonable answer to our good fortune and our current situation.  So,  we said, “yes,” we could house a person or small family for a couple of months.  We said “yes,” we could provide food and care until the person or family could acclimate to their new world.  And, the UUSC and SURJ representatives said they’d get back to us.

We waited and wondered what we had said “yes” to and what this really meant.  SURJ kept us updated a bit, but it wasn’t until late April that we were told some details. We were matched with a young Guatemalan woman and her infant son who had entered the country on April 24th and then had been transferred to a detention center in Dilly, Texas.  We quickly filled out the forms for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and sent the required letters of reference.  This is my first “thank-you,”officially from the pulpit, to the dozen or so First U members who vouched for our character to ICE.  Apparently, your words were convincing because we were approved and directed on a Thursday to purchase airline tickets to transport Johanna and Angel (the Guatemalan woman and her baby) to fly to Providence from Texas on the following Monday, which happened to be Memorial Day one year ago.

My husband and I welcomed Johanna and Angel at 2am at TF Green airport.  For those of you who have met them – you will believe me when I tell you that the warmth of Johanna’s smile radiated from the escalator at the airport as she waved to us as we held our “Bienvenido” sign. It was clear from that smile that we were doing the right thing.

We also realized, quite quickly, that becoming sponsors of asylum seekers would be an experience full of rewards, challenges, laughs, tears, and would certainly be more than a two-month commitment we’d imagined.

We also quickly learned that Johanna is one of the smartest people we’d ever know. She is strong and resilient, tough as nails. She is gracious and generous, thoughtful and grateful. Ángel is about as pleasant a baby as we’ve ever known.  He has been a breath of fresh air in our lives. Somehow, Johanna, who came to the US knowing no one, with $18 in hand and no English, integrated herself into her new world with grace and significant success. And, with great joy and gratitude, I want to share with you another thank you for the warm and generous welcome she received from many of the congregants of this church as well as from many, many others in RI.

Before I go further, I’d like to formally introduce you to Johanna, and she would like to say a few words.

Words of Gratitude by Johanna Hernandez

Good morning to everyone.   My name is Johanna Hernandez.  I am from Guatemala.  I think some people do not know me.  I want to tell you a part of my experience here in the United States. The truth is when I arrived here I felt so happy to meet such a good and affectionate family. Since in my life I had never been with people like the Ortman family, I have learned many good things with them I am very grateful to them and to all who have supported me in many ways, for example in personal experiences.   About 5 months ago  I moved into an apartment in Providence.  Many friends of the Ortman family and of this church helped me.  I thank God for putting such wonderful people on my way and thank you very much for your help. Thanks to each of you very much.

Last March, Johanna and Angel moved into a lovely two-bedroom apartment at McAuley Village.  The apartment was almost fully furnished and supplied with necessities by the dear women of my First U Chalice group.  Johanna is in ESL classes full time and Angel is in a great daycare.

When Johanna gathered up Angel and fled Guatemala in fear for their lives, she had no idea she’d land in Rhode Island.  And she certainly had no idea how much she would enhance the lives of all the people she would meet here. Quite a gift all around!

On hearing our story, many people respond that they think my husband and I are doing something unusually virtuous by having invited Johanna and Ángel into our home and our lives. I don’t think so. The thing is that there was a need, that we were capable of responding to that need, and so – how could we not respond?

It’s not saintly to do what you’re called to do. It’s merely welcoming an opportunity, a possibility that might help you to grow your own soul. And that is what we’re all here to do, right? To grow our souls.

Here is what I would want you to know. Johanna and Ángel have been an incredible blessing in our lives and I believe in the lives of everyone who has gotten to know them. In this current climate of celebrated narcissism and bullying, of self-serving interests and fear mongering racism, Johanna and Ángel offer us a way of resisting some of that hate.  In these troubled times, that’s an incredible gift – to be able to do something positive in the face of so much evil.

I started this talk by saying it is now time for the Sanctuary Committee to broaden its work.

Sanctuary, within our church walls, was a way for a person or family to make a plea for compassion and humanity to the powers that be.  Unfortunately, the powers that be currently are deaf.  Yes, we will provide sanctuary at First U should the need arise, but it is time for us to broaden our work.

Becoming a sponsor of an asylum seeker or supporting sponsors is one way we can, as individuals and as a congregation, broaden our impact.  We currently are engaging with other congregations and organizations to magnify our voices and actions on behalf of those in need. Many ideas have been suggested:  sending attorneys to the borders, fund raising, letter writing, attending rallies, volunteering, sponsoring asylum seekers, fostering displaced children, etc.

Many people want to know how to respond to the madness that surrounds us in this country and in the world. Pay attention. Your invitation is in hand. And it is up to you, whether to say “yes” and welcome it or not.

I concur with Dina Nayeri who said, “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks.”

Thank you.