The Struggle to be a Sanctuary City

By Rev. Peter G. Heltzel, Ph.D.

Sixty percent of New York City’s population is composed of immigrants or are born of immigrant parents—we are an immigrant city. So when President Donald J. Trump announced his Muslim Ban, Mayor Bill de Blasio called clergy to the Blue Room at City Hall and announced that New York City was a Sanctuary City. As leaders of the diverse mosaic of religions in New York, we were heartened to hear Mayor de Blasio’s passion for protecting immigrants in the Big Apple.

Our Holy Scriptures all call us to care for the immigrants in our midst: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). During Mayor de Blasio’s address to us clergy, he assured us that the New York Police Department would never work with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in extracting immigrants from our city under his watch. But just last month, as ICE carted away a popular NYC Sanctuary Movement leader, Ravi Ragbir, from Federal Plaza for his alleged “crime” (he has since been released), an NYPD Officer choked my friend Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz and another NYPD Officer choked my Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez (D-10th). Both men were at Federal Plaza in protest, in support of Ravi, and in support of our Sanctuary City.

Not only has the NYPD worked with ICE agents on the streets of New York, they have also used unjustified aggression against supporters of the Sanctuary Movement.

If we fail to speak out about the invasion of ICE into our beloved city, we are the “sin-sick soul” of the old spiritual. Sin sickness deadens our conscience and our moral consciousness. Sin deadens and decays our morals. We accept things we should not. If we allow that sin sickness to become a regular part of our daily lives, we’ll get to where we wake up one morning and it may be too late to change.

When the NYPD offers an armed escort to ICE agents as they detain one of our city’s moral heroes like Ravi Ragbir, families are broken, as are the hearts of so many New Yorkers who share this city with immigrants from every corner of the globe. Whether we are officers or activists, citizens or residents, we are all New Yorkers.

Declaring oneself a Sanctuary City is an act of love, the kind of love we see in scripture. If Mayor de Blasio wishes to be the leader he claims to be, for the city he claims to love, then love is what he must show. And it cannot be a call to love select neighbors or neighborhoods as he said time and again during his mayoral campaign. A Sanctuary City is a safe haven for all who are threatened by the increasingly long and aggressive arm of ICE.

As Christians move into the 40-Day Season of Lent, a season of self-examination and repentance through which we are called to pray, fast and serve the poor, then from a mayor like Bill de Blasio to a pastor like me, let us be courageous to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Faith leaders from around our Beloved City working with Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD have trusted them to truly live into our identity as a Sanctuary City; that means our  Mayor and New York’s finest must treat all who dwell here with respect and promises kept. 

As we work for a more just and equitable city, I would like to invite you to come and hear faith leaders deliver the 1st Annual “Spirit of the City” Address at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, at Riverside Church. An intercultural coalition of multifaith leaders from throughout New York City led by the Micah Faith Table NYC will offer Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council our reflections on the state of the city in light of our encounters with people living on the margins.

Informed by these encounters and our prophetic faith, we will present policy recommendations to the City and ask Mayor de Blasio and City Council join us in building a real Sanctuary City, committed to economic justice, popular education, affordable housing, environmental sustainability, immigration reform, and putting an end to police brutality once-and-for-all. With the fierce urgency of now we will recommend policies for Mayor de Blasio and the City Council to pursue with all deliberate speed, for justice delayed is justice denied.

Rev. Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Ph.D. is Pastor of Evangelism and Discipleship at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, Associate Professor of Theology at New York Theological Seminary, and an Auburn Senior Fellow.

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