Saving Grace

First Unitarian Church offers sanctuary to undocumented migrants facing deportation


In the beginning of June, the First Unitarian Church of Providence celebrated a bold decision: to provide sanctuary to any individual or family threatened with deportation. First Unitarian is the first religious institution in Rhode Island to offer this kind of sanctuary, according to Church World Services, but it’s one of 1,110 other churches across the nation to do so.

“For us, it’s important to not just be professing things, but to be figuring out what our faith needs to look like in the world,” says Reverend Liz Lerner Maclay, the parish minister. “Offering sanctuary is absolutely what our faith needs to look like. This is a faithful act. A religious act.”

The decision was a long time coming. As President Trump prepared to take office in 2016, the church’s Side With Love Committee researched ways they could support immigrants in Providence, according to Cynthia Rosengard, past president of the congregation. Many church members found parallels between their own immigrant ancestors and more recent migrants, whose citizenship status is now in jeopardy. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports that the number of deportations rose 34 percent after President Trump’s first year in office.

“We’re damned if we’ll see the opportunities that saved our families’ lives denied other people whose lives are now at risk,” says Reverend Maclay.

Over several months, First Unitarian consulted with lawyers, local organizations, and church leaders from across the country to discuss the need for a Sanctuary Church in Providence. The group also addressed insurance concerns, says congregation president Jay Glasson, and worked with city officials to receive fire department and building permit approval.

While no one has yet sought shelter, the Sanctuary Steering Committee hopes they will have 130 trained volunteers by the time someone arrives. About half of those positions so far have been filled by members of the congregation. ICE policy designates churches, schools, and hospitals as sensitive locations, discouraging agents’ entry, but there have been several reports of people being taken into custody upon leaving these areas. “We can use all the help we can get,” says Katherine Ahlquist, the committee’s chairperson.

“We didn’t know what responses we were going to get, but so far it’s all been affirming and supportive,” says Reverend Maclay. “What I’m seeing is that Providence is an aptly named city with a big heart. We will provide for each other and make sure each other are provided for.”

For more information, contact the committee at