The North Carolina Sanctuary Church Resident's Arrest Highlights a Growing Divide Among American Christians

While many Christians are struggling to offer immigrants sanctuary, others are in favor of the Trump administration's immigration policies.
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Samuel Oliver-Bruno (left).

Samuel Oliver-Bruno (left) lived in the basement of the CityWell United Methodist Church for 11 months until last week.

In North Carolina, the arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents last week of a man who had been living in a church for nearly a year prompted statewide rallies in his support—and showed once again how the Trump administration's immigration policy is driving a wedge between Christian communities.

Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a 47-year-old man originally from Mexico, lived in the basement of the CityWell United Methodist Church for 11 months until Friday, when he left the premises for a scheduled meeting with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services officials. Minutes after Oliver-Bruno entered the building, witnesses tell Pacific Standard that plainclothes ICE officers arrested him and moved him into a van behind the building. About 50 congregation members had escorted Oliver-Bruno to the meeting, understanding the risks he faced leaving the sanctuary; his hope was that he would successfully apply to remain in North Carolina with his wife and son.

Congregants surrounded the van, praying and singing songs including "Amazing Grace" and, in Spanish, "Ven, Espíritu, Ven" (translation: "Come Holy Spirit Come"), Oliver-Bruno's favorite, while some entreated the ICE officers to have mercy on Oliver-Bruno. Finally, after about two hours, police arrested more than a dozen of the protesters blocking the vehicle.

"For us, as Christians, we believe the church is not only the building but the people. When we accompany someone, he is not leaving sanctuary," says Katherine Guerrero, a CityWell member who had coordinated Oliver-Bruno's sanctuary on the church's premises. Guerrero spoke to Pacific Standard after she'd spent the previous day consoling Oliver-Burno's wife and son.

There are five other sanctuary churches in North Carolina, the largest known number in the country so far. Guerrero says that Oliver-Bruno's saga only underlines the need for faith communities across the United States to bolster efforts to help immigrants.

"There's just such a greater need now for churches to open their doors. I think that's we're called to do as Christians," she says.

In the days that followed Oliver-Bruno's arrest, Guerrero has seen fellow Christians lambast her church for what they have deemed to be the harboring of a criminal. "Whatever God they believe in, it seems so far away from the God I know," she says. "I do believe in the Jesus who said, 'When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.'"

While Guerrero and her ilk struggle to offer immigrants sanctuary and other support, others are in favor of the Trump administration's immigration policies. An overwhelming 81 percent of Christian evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and Gallup poll results released in April showed that 68 percent of religious white Protestants approved of Trump's administration. Christian communities' support for Trump comes despite vocal opposition from many Church leaders to Trump's immigration policies. For instance, the National Association of Evangelicals, a group that represents 45,000 churches from 40 denominations, has repeatedly issued calls to welcome refugees, to reject the demonization of the migrant caravan awaiting asylum at the U.S.–Mexico border, to help preserve legal status for the children of undocumented immigrants, and to respect the role of immigrants in American society.

"There is certainly a division among evangelicals over the matter and it tends to be between leaders who argue on the basis of principle and more populist rank and file who follow party loyalties—plus some leaders who try to mobilize party loyalties," says George Marsden, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and a leading authority on the role of Christianity in American society.

For Trump's evangelical base, news of a larger-than-ever population of unaccompanied immigrant children in U.S. custody and images of barefoot migrant children running from U.S. teargas and rubber bullets at the border will do little to turn them against the administration, analysts explain. "For Trump's core evangelical supporters, I doubt that he could cross any moral line and lose their support," says Richard Flory, a sociologist at the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture who recently published a report on the diversity of American evangelicals, focusing in part on issues of politics.

"They way that they have interpreted him as a leader (complete with biblical support that an 'ungodly' leader can still be used by God to bring about God's will on Earth), there really isn't any reason for them to drop their support," Flory says. "They already know the extent to which Trump represents a moral vacuum, both personally, in his business, and in his politics, and they aren't jumping ship, so I doubt they will ever see a reason to drop their support."

Jesus is quoted in Matthew 22:21 as saying, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's"—a passage frequently used in Christian theology to underline that the government need not act in a godly way. Others interpret the passage to oppose theocracy—government based not on rule of law but religious doctrine.

Flory says that many support Trump and his administration because they anticipate he will deliver on key policy issues like overturning Roe v. Wade. "They want a strong (male) leader that can promise, and follow through on those kinds of issues," he adds.

Even hints of Trump's own experiences with abortion seem not to matter to the evangelicals in his camp. "Trump evangelicals love to claim a distinction between the functions of government and the functions of the church and of individual believers," says William Svelmoe, a history professor at Saint Mary's College in Indiana specializing in evangelicalism and American religious history. "Therefore they have no qualms with their government teargassing children at the border, separating children from parents, refusing health care to those in need, stirring up racism, etc."

Unflinching evangelical support in some quarters for the Trump administration may owe itself to the way the Republican Party has actively attempted to paint immigrants as a threat to both America and Christian values. "Since the time of Nixon, the Republican Party has pursued a Southern Strategy that has relied primarily and successfully on racist dog whistles. It has intentionally sown fear of others (blacks, Jews, Hispanics, Muslims, queer people and more) especially with the narrative that these others will take their America away from them," says Dudley Rose, the associate dean of ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School. "This has been combined with a conflation of America and Christianity. So the perception of threat these others represent has been multiplied significantly by characterizing it as a threat to Christianity and God as well. It conveniently allows, then, the defense of Christianity against these dangerous others to 'Trump' to acting according to Christian teachings. Trump has merely been willing to take the logic to its logical conclusion."

Indeed, it was after the Nixon administration that the evangelical camp that would come to support Trump began to fervently espouse Republican Party platforms on immigrants and others, says Svelmoe, the Saint Mary's historian. "When evangelicals moved solidly into the Republican Party over the issue of abortion in the late '70s and '80s, they adopted all of the conservative Republican positions with religion fervor. If the Republican Party was literally the party of God, and the Democrats the party of Satan, then every position pushed by Republicans needed to be defended with biblical fervor. And that's where they lost their way."

While faith drives some to more ardent support of Trump's anti-immigrant policy, Guerrero credits her faith for giving her hope that Oliver-Bruno's time with his family has not come to an end. "We are holding on to hope. That's part of having the faith we have as well. One of the things that Samuel taught us as we got to know him over the past 11 months is that faith and strength, as he was struggling with the ability to live in a church," she says.

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