John Allen was enrolled at Davidson College in North Carolina but took night classes at a community college to learn firefighting and EMT skills. “While in college, I transitioned from being a student who was a firefighter at night to a firefighter who went to classes during the day,” he says, only half joking.
After he graduated, the Needham native joined a volunteer effort called No More Deaths, which works in the Sonoran Desert providing food, water, and medical aid to migrants crossing the border from Mexico.
“I pitched a tent in the desert where they told me to,” says Allen. “We would walk around the desert and call out, ‘We’re from the church. We have food. We have water. We have medical assistance.’ ”
In the fall of 2010, Allen was headed to Union Theological Seminary in New York, intending to study the New Testament and become an academic. But that summer in the desert ignited a call to the ministry, “to help in some way beyond just helping limit the damage of the massive, systemic crisis I saw,” he says.
After seminary, Allen returned to Massachusetts and became a pastoral resident at the Wellesley Village Church, a United Church of Christ congregation. He’d grown up at the First Congregational Church of Needham. In 2015, he was named pastor at First Congregational Church in Milton.
On the January weekend when President Trump signed an executive order halting all refugee admissions and temporarily barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries, Allen tore up his prepared sermon. “Instead, I talked about why this matters to me, and why it should matter to all of us,” says Allen, who is 29. “Treating refugees and immigrants with compassion is a core theme of the Bible, not just a verse here or there.”
Allen’s most recent activism is called Sanctuary in the Streets, and it’s a sort of rapid response for those rounded up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids. He’s taken the training, offered by the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a faith-based group of organizations working for economic and racial justice. He has spoken to groups in Natick, Springfield, Milton, and Quincy on the issue.
And now, he’s got dozens of people from Milton and Quincy signed up to take the training to respond when there’s an immigration raid in their communities. Sanctuary in the Streets is different from churches that literally offer sanctuary, or shelter, to someone seeking safe haven from ICE.
“We want to bear witness, to hold vigils, to go to court with someone, to offer a ride to a safe place,” Allen says. “If someone is told to bring a passport or suitcase to an ICE check-in, they would also bring us.”
In addition to his religious beliefs, Allen says there’s also a civil argument to be made: “What ICE does is supposedly on our behalf, and it won’t be done out of sight.” Those witnesses will live-stream raids and take notes and pictures to spread the word.
On Saturday, the Massachusetts Communities Action Network is cosponsoring a workshop called “Sanctuary Hood” at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston on how to help keep immigrants safe. “The rest of us, 20 years from now when we look back, will say, ‘Where was I? What did I do?’ Our big mantra is no one stands alone,” says Janine Carreiro, the network’s codirector.
In June, Allen’s church provided space for an informational meeting led by the Rev. Liz Garrigan-Byerly, associate pastor at Wellesley Village Church.
She is part of the Framingham Solidarity Network made up of several nonprofits that have worked on behalf of immigrants. Volunteers accompany people to court dates in Framingham and Burlington and to federal immigration hearings in Boston. They help throughout the western suburbs as needs arise, and hope to expand to other areas.
“Our primary purposes are to help the immigrant not feel so alone and vulnerable, to help navigate the judicial process, to provide transportation and translation . . . and to show ICE agents and immigration judges that these people are known to and valued by American citizens, and that we are following their stories and watching what comes of them,” says Garrigan-Byerly.
Judges sometimes ask why they’re there. “We’ve heard from the lawyers of some of the people we accompany that our presence at hearings has made a difference,” she says.
The moral commitment is not new, Garrigan-Byerly says; what is new is the anti-immigrant rhetoric, ICE presence, and fear among immigrants. “We feel it is our duty to journey alongside them and do whatever we can to make them less vulnerable,” she notes.
Joe Herosy of Quincy has signed up for Allen’s Sanctuary in the Streets training in hopes of making immigrants feel more welcome. He says he believes the federal government is overstepping its mandate by asking local police to act as ICE agents.
“The Constitution allows for flexibility in the enforcement of immigration laws, and the current push for mass deportation is not at all based on a respect for the law,” says Herosy, 52, a music teacher. “It is much harder for today’s immigrants coming from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. These immigrants make our country a better place by contributing to our entrepreneurial spirit and diversity.”
And if they need him, he and others intend to be there.
Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.