Springfield Church not Backing Down in Conflict with Mayor over Shelter of Undocumented Woman

If Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno is trying to scare the South Congregational Church, it isn’t working.

The historic Springfield church at 45 Maple Street has been sheltering an undocumented Peruvian woman named Gisella, whose last name is being withheld due to her immigration status, since Monday and plans to continue doing so in spite of the pressure.

Sarno has taken a hard-line approach to the situation and has proposed the removal of the church’s tax-exempt status. He has also claimed that the church is violating sanitation codes by allowing people to live on the premises.

Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, the pastor at the South Congregational Church, said that the church has no plans to change their course of action in providing sanctuary to Gisella and her two American born children who are staying with her.

“Our primary concern is for the welfare of the family we’re offering sanctuary to,” Gerstenlauer said. The pastor said that the Springfield Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition, a group of churches and places of worship that support sanctuary, has been making preparations for the past ten months to shelter undocumented immigrants in need. “We are largely taking our lead from Gisella and her family, we want to help her be comfortable. It’s not going to be home, but we’re trying to provide whatever we can,” Gerstenlauer said.

The pastor isn’t afraid that the city will act on Sarno’s proposed revocation of status and said he doesn’t believe the city can do so. Gerstenlauer said, “I will say it is a puzzle why the mayor is doing what he is doing. I certainly don’t know.” Whatever the reason, the church is not backing down.

“I have invited him to a one-on-one conservation through the media, but so far there’s been no response,” Gerstenlauer said.

The church has a legal team that is navigating the muddy waters of immigration in the era of Trump. “We believe that Gisella will be granted a stay of deportation, the legal team has said it’s not unreasonable,” said Gerstenlauer. He added, “Our federal government is not operating the [immigration] system as it exists,” and that Gisella is being oppressed.

City Councilor Adam Gomez said that the actions Sarno has taken in attacking a church  may backfire. “In this time of Holy Week, it puts us in a bad place,” said Gomez. It is currently the week of Christian holidays that culminate with Easter on April 1.

“If Springfield is not a sanctuary city, so be it, but what gives us the right to tell a church how to operate?” said Gomez. He said that Sarno is worried about the city of Springfield losing millions of dollars in federal funding due to President Trump’s threat to crackdown on sanctuary cities, but he doesn’t believe that one woman taking refuge in a church will put the city risk for losing funding.

Domenic Sarno’s office had no additional comment at the time of the posting of this article.

Gomez said there was no reason to spend taxpayer time and money on the issue. “We do a great disservice to the citizens of Springfield,” he says; he believes the majority of the council shares his beliefs.

“The church is following their mission,” Gomez says and that mission, as Gerstenlauer put it, is to give “love for our neighbor and hospitality to the stranger.”

Author: Sarah Heinonen

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