LINCOLN PARK — The Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church is literally throwing open its doors to undocumented immigrants.
The church, at 600 W. Fullerton Parkway, has almost completed the process of clearing an attic space that had been used for storage and converting it into a two-room apartment that could welcome a family of undocumented immigrants facing deportation later this year.
"We don't know when or if that will happen, but we need to be ready in any case," said Rev. Beth Brown, the church pastor.
"There's a lot of fear," she said, but not among her congregation, which had been discussing a response to Donald Trump's rhetoric on undocumented immigrants on the campaign trail, going back almost a year to his charge that Mexicans coming into the United States were "rapists."
"After the election, we started having that conversation in a very serious way," Brown added.
The church, she said, weighed "a lot of questions about risk and finances," as well as concerns about whether it would distract from its latest initiative, the Compassion Project. Early this year, however, the denomination decided it was "symbiotic with what we thought our mission was — reaching out to people who are marginalized in some way or who are not being treated justly. It's part of who this church has always been."
Lincoln Park Presbyterian will leave it up to local organizations serving undocumented immigrants to send them its way. At that point, it may or may not trumpet their arrival, depending on how aggressively Trump's administration is pursuing them.
Brown pointed to the earlier sanctuary movement of 20 and 30 years ago, involving people fleeing civil wars and repressive regimes in Central America. Although Lincoln Park Presbyterian didn't actually house any of those fleeing death squads, it was part of a movement that was open about granting sanctuary.
"Their strategy was to do it all very publicly," Brown said. "Part of what you're doing is signaling to a lot of people: this person is being treated unfairly.
"The sanctuary movement has been all about changing policy," Brown added. "What remains to be seen this time is whether it's still going to be as public. And I don't know if anybody has the answer to that right now."
Churches recognize that public support for housing immigrants could help protect them, but it could also backfire and encourage raids.
In any case, Brown said, Lincoln Park Presbyterian was uniquely positioned to take a direct role this time. Churches in Hispanic areas with undocumented immigrants as parishioners might not want to attract a spotlight by providing actual sanctuary to a select few. Lincoln Park Presbyterian, which does not typically have a large number of Hispanic congregants, wouldn't have that issue.
"We wouldn't be putting people in jeopardy who are already part of our congregation," Brown said. "There are some things we can't do as a small congregation, and some things we can do."
That's part of what drew her to the church just over three years ago, even though she writes in her online biography that her friends back home in Northern California thought she'd "lost my marbles" to move here.
The church, she said, already had a nationwide reputation among Presbyterians. "This church has a very long history of LGBTQ activism and advocacy," she said. It also decided in the 2000s to step forward among the other churches that had joined to create the Lincoln Park Community Shelter and actually place it in the church basement, where it remains, having prevailed in a legal challenge filed by area neighbors.
"I was really drawn to this congregation because I felt like they had over the years sort of put their money where their mouth was," Brown said. "They literally gave up half their space" — kitchen, basement, restrooms — to accommodate the shelter.
"I love the idea of a church and a shelter being in the same space," she added.
"This church has always taken very seriously the call to be on the side of the person treated unjustly, who doesn't have housing or is hungry or is being marginalized or repressed in some way because of who they are. I think this is a natural extension," she said of welcoming undocumented people. "We take a very progressive reading of scripture and feel you need to actually show you're caring. You can't just talk about it."
That, Brown said, is what drew her to Lincoln Park Presbyterian. "It wasn't the weather," she added.