Three veteran activists are staging a hunger strike in front of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception this week, calling on the Roman Catholic Church to open its church doors to undocumented immigrants fearing deportation.
The protesters — a nun, a former Jesuit brother and a female priest not recognized by the church — said they wrote a letter to Cardinal Donald Wuerl making the request but have received no response.
Wuerl, the leader of the Washington Archdiocese’s 620,000 Catholics, said in March that the church’s values compel it to oppose the deportation of immigrants living illegally in the United States. But he has expressed caution about the idea of churches acting as sanctuaries for those seeking to avoid deportation.
“The Catholic Church strives to help all who seek pastoral care, spiritual guidance and material assistance,” Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said Tuesday. “The parishes of the Archdiocese of Washington and also Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington are welcoming to all in need of assistance. We accompany those who seek help, whether material, legal, or pastoral. That is our calling as Christians, and that is what we do every day.”
The protesters, all of whom have participated in hunger strikes before, began this effort Monday.
They spent most of Monday and Tuesday outside the perimeter of the church holding protest signs printed in English and Spanish. They are drinking water and, sometimes, coffee.
Felix Cepeda, the former Jesuit brother who came from New York to help lead the protest, said the trio hopes to engage and educate the Washington community so residents will push the church to allow homeless people and immigrants fearing deportation to seek refuge there. “When we leave, the locals can continue the pressure,” Cepeda said.
Cepeda repeatedly tried to enter the Basilica grounds Tuesday with his protest signs, a violation of church rules, according to Jacquelyn Hayes, a spokeswoman for the Basilica. When Cepeda refused to leave church grounds around 6 p.m., security issued him a notice banning him from entering church property. Hayes said D.C. police signed off on the ban notice.
The other protesters were Janice Sevre-Duszynska — a woman from Baltimore whose ordination by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests is not recognized by the church hierarchy — and Sister Megan Gillespie Rice, 87, a nun and longtime activist on nuclear weapons and other issues who lives in the Washington area.
Cepeda and others have also protested in New York to demand that Catholic churches there serve as sanctuaries. Dozens of Catholic churches have shuttered in New York City in recent years, and, instead of selling them, Cepeda wants the church to use them to house people in need.
The church-as-sanctuary movement has grown in recent years, with more than 800 congregations of all denominations serving as sanctuaries, according to the Rev. Noel Andersen of the World Church Movement.
“The churches need to be used for the needs of people, and right now that means migrants, homeless and immigrants,” Sevre-Duszynska said.