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New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

| Hannah Roebuck |

The New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta (NSMA) is an interfaith, multicultural coalition of faith communities, advocacy organizations, and nonprofits that work to support migrants, refugees, and detainees in Georgia. Their vision is as follows:

The New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta imagines and builds a beloved community crossing borders of faith, ethnicity, and class in our work to end injustices against immigrants regardless of immigration status, practice generous welcome for all, and ensure that values of dignity, justice, compassion, and hospitality are lived out in practice and upheld in policy.

The NSMA was established in 2017 in the wake of the divisive and dangerous anti-migrant rhetoric of the 2016 election. Pastor Tom Hagood of Columbia Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia led the charge as he and his congregation reflected on the pain around them and asked, “Who is our neighbor? Who needs our help?” Migrants, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers were particularly vulnerable and facing mounting danger each day. Pastor Hagood led his congregation in a two-month period of research, contemplation, and planning as they decided how to come alongside migrants and center their needs. They were inspired by the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, and they found out about contemporary sanctuary efforts in other cities across the United States. Pastor Hagood and his church community joined an effort with other local churches to launch the New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta out of a collaborative desire to advocate for and serve the traditionally unwelcome in Atlanta. They sought interfaith involvement in the NSMA, and the coalition has grown to include 35-40 diverse groups in just three years. NSMA welcomes the participation of faith communities, organizations, and individuals who affirm the following:

  • That all human beings are loved by their creator and deserving of a safe place to live, work, and worship without fear, without regard to their nationality, ethnicity, religion, economic status, immigration status, gender, ability, age, or sexual orientation;

  • That we have a responsibility to ensure the welfare of all in our decision making, and to hold the governments of city, county, state, and country accountable;

  • That we advocate for laws that ensure the rights of immigrants;

  • That we reject using power or speech to bully, intimate, threaten, or cause emotional, physical, or spiritual violence

The NSMA began with the intention to provide shelter and physical sanctuary for migrants, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Georgia; however, they quickly realized that because there is only a 5% chance of a successful asylum or immigration ruling in the state, people do not want to seek sanctuary in Georgia. They often try to have their cases moved to more favorable states. The NSMA pivoted and redesigned their efforts as they listened to the needs of the communities they serve. The NSMA’s activities and programs are vast, but they fall into four main categories: education, hospitality, advocacy, and community relations. To name a few specific activities, they train and mobilize immigration court watchers, lobby government officials, host public events and prayer vigils, facilitate education forums and discussions, provide legal aid and sponsor migration cases, and mobilize a vast volunteer force to host and provide basic necessities for asylum seekers in Atlanta. The NSMA also works closely with the hospitality house El Refugio and supports detainees at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA. In addition to a long-term asylum apartment, Pastor Hagood’s church recently received a grant to convert another church space into a full apartment to host short-term stays for recent detainees from the Stewart Detention Center. The activities of the NSMA continue to evolve alongside the changing needs of migrants, immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and detainees in the Atlanta area.

I spoke with 5 religious leaders in the NSMA, and they graciously agreed to share their stories and perspectives on welcoming the stranger and interfaith social justice activism. The individual interviews took place over Zoom, and the narrative account has been edited and approved for accuracy by the interviewees.


Tom Hagood has been the pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church in Decatur, GA for twenty years. Pastor Hagood has a clear passion for people. He believes that Jesus Christ can be found in every person’s story if we just take the time to listen, that stories build relationships, and that relationships tear down walls. Pastor Hagood has a long record of social justice work and inclusion, and he serves with numerous organizations in Atlanta such as the Decatur Cooperative Ministry and Freedom University. Columbia Presbyterian Church is a diverse congregation committed to providing for those in need, including marginalized communities.

Arshad Anwar is the Imam at Roswell Community Masjid (RCM). Imam Anwar was born in Pakistan, and his family moved to Mississippi when he was a kid. He grew up in southern Mississippi and graduated high school in 2001. September 11, 2001 dramatically shaped Imam Anwar’s thoughts about his career and purpose. Imam Anwar moved back to Pakistan to get a degree in Islamic Studies and Scriptural Interpretation at the International Islamic University. He moved to Atlanta in 2011 to teach various religious subjects to first- through eighth-graders graders at a private Islamic school until leaving to serve as the Faith Leader at RCM in 2015. RCM is a thriving community committed to development, knowledge, and empowerment.

Dave Dunn is the Minister at Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North (UUMAN). This is Minister Dunn’s fifth year serving in Atlanta at UUMAN after a career change. UUMAN is located in Roswell, GA, and their mission includes three key objectives: “Nurture our Spirit; Strive for Justice; Transform the World.” The vision of the congregation is “to be a vital and visible community for all, bravely working toward the day when social, economic, and environmental justice is a reality.”

Melanie Vaughn-West is a Pastor at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, GA. Reverend Vaughn-West grew up in Atlanta and received her Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Reverend Vaughn-West worked with Oakhurst during her studies because of their demonstrated commitment to social justice. She was ordained by Oakhurst 2001, and she returned to serve at Oakhurst in 2007. Oakhurst has a long history in Atlanta, and the church has gone through dramatic reforms in response to segregation, integration, and racial justice in the city. The Covenant of Oakhurst Baptist now proclaims, “we reject any status in this fellowship in terms of church office, possessions, education, race, age, gender, sexual orientation, mental ability, physical ability or other distinctions.”

Alexandria Shuval-Weiner is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell, GA. Rabbi Shuval-Weiner was born in California and grew up all over the United States. Prior to rabbinical school, Rabbi Shuval-Weiner worked in the field of Jewish education. She was ordained as a rabbi in 2008, and before joining Temple Beth Tikvah in Atlanta in 2015, she served in various urban areas in California, Kansas, Oregon, and Texas. Rabbi Shuval-Weiner has been committed to advocacy and social justice, particularly for migrant workers, throughout her career, and her community at Temple Beth Tikvah is very politically diverse.

How do your religious beliefs shape your perspectives on migration, hospitality, and the traditionally unwelcome?

Pastor Tom Hagood of Columbia Presbyterian Church spoke of the Christian responsibility to “the alien in our midst.” Pastor Hagood said, “We’re just told to do it,” and he explained that the Christian community cannot pick and choose “who our neighbor is that we are going to help and who are neighbor is that we’re not going to help.” Reverend Vaughn-West, who is also part of the larger Christian tradition, explained that there is a constant focus on welcoming the stranger and advocating for the poor in Christian scripture. She said, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is one of inclusion, of social justice, of bringing heaven to earth,” and “Christ calls us to pay attention to people who are suffering or are marginalized.” Imam Anwar shared a similar sentiment about the religious principles of Islam embedded in the Quran that shape responsibility to the stranger. He explained that within the Five Pillars of Islam, the Obligation to Give Charity (Zakat) includes giving 2.5% of annual wealth to certain communities and individuals in need. At the end of Ramadhan, Muslims also give another form of charity in the form of dry foods like rice or wheat, and at the end of the hajj, one must give charity in the form of meat. One of the categories of people included in charitable giving is the migrant or “someone who has left their home and is now in your land.”

Imam Anwar and Rabbi Shuval-Weiner both highlighted the influence of their respective religious history of migration and welcome. Imam Anwar also told of the two major migrations in Islamic history. During the first migration, the oppressed class and some wealthier Muslims in the city of Mecca migrated to Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia, where they were welcomed by a Christian king. Life became increasingly difficult under persecution and oppression in Mecca, and there was a second migration from Mecca to Medina. The Muslim refugees were fully welcomed by the tribal society in Medina, and the religious principle of “establishing brotherhood” was developed. Imam Anwar describes this attitude and the actions of the people in Medina as if they said, “We will give you complete security, give you property, give you a financial footing, and integrate you into our families and into our social community to invite you into who we are.” Imam Anwar explained, “Theologically and religiously speaking, that is the biggest example of what it meant for a community to truly welcome people that are coming completely from the outside.”

Rabbi Shuval-Weiner explained the influence of Jewish history and Jewish identity formation on religious beliefs toward the traditionally unwelcome – “Everything in our tradition is a constant reminder that the world perfected is a world in which there is equity and respect and that we are all partners with the Divine in continuing the process of creation. To separate oneself from that ideology is really separating yourself from your relationship with God and with your relationship with humanity.” Rabbi Shuval-Weiner highlighted the most commonly repeated phrase in the Hebrew Bible – “Remember you were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” – and noted that it directly shapes Jewish responsibility to the marginalized and the vulnerable. She explained further that the Holiness Code in Leviticus includes instructions to pay fair wages and to protect the marginalized, the prophets constantly remind the Jewish people to use their position to support others, and the Book of Ruth is the ultimate narrative of the outsider. Speaking specifically about refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, Rabbi Shuval-Weiner said, “I personally struggle with any person who claims to be observant and thinks this isn’t an issue…These are teachings that are supposed to help us in every generation, so to divorce yourself from that is in my view an abomination–a breaking of the covenant.”

Minister Dunn explained that although Unitarian Universalists – or UUs – do not have a proscribed, systematic theology like those found in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, UU congregations affirm seven Principles as values and moral guides. The final Principle is “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” and Minister Dunn has applied this idea to care for refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. He said, “if we as UUs believe in an interdependent cosmos, we are responsible for everything. There is not any topic, person, or issue we can’t be involved in…Everything that happens on our watch as Unitarian Universalists, we are responsible for, and we need to do something about it.”

What is the role of religion or religious groups in the polarized and political sphere of migration and detention?

Pastor Hagood adamantly affirmed the place of religious communities and interfaith groups more specifically in the polarized conversation on migration and detention in the United States. He worked with his congregation to develop the NSMA for that very purpose, and he emphasized the importance of education and connection – “Every bridge we can build and talk to people can help reconcile the brokenness in our nation right now.” Minister Dunn shared a similar sentiment and focused on responsibility – “We are responsible for everything that goes on here” – including the political rhetoric that shapes policy on migration and detention. Rabbi Shuval-Weiner echoed the importance of collective responsibility and said it is hard to find a religious tradition that “believes they can turn their back on those who are in need.” Imam Anwar was quick to answer that the responsibility to welcome the stranger and provide for refugees, migrants, and immigrants should not be a political issue. Like Rabbi Shuval-Weiner, he said this is a humanitarian issue for people of all faiths. Reverend Vaughn-West responded similarly, “Advocacy for immigrants and refugees is about wanting to make the world safe for immigrants and refugees no matter what their faith background is, no matter what their politics are – they are human beings.” Speaking of her Christian tradition, she noted, “My faith tells me that I should always see the humanity in another and work to protect it and keep it safe and give that person or those people as many opportunities to flourish as possible…For those of us who see a really clear connection between our faith, our theology, and welcoming the stranger, we have been really perplexed by the argument that the Christian perspective would be otherwise.”

Why do you see value in leading your congregation into interfaith collaboration? How does interfaith work oriented toward social justice compare to interfaith dialogue?

Each faith leader expressed a clear preference for interfaith action over interfaith dialogue. Interfaith action may be harder to undertake, but there is profound beauty in the relationships that develop. Pastor Hagood and his congregation designed the New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta to be rooted in interfaith collaboration. He said that collective action oriented toward social justice “makes it easier to take down walls and meet each other.” He emphasized that activism provides a link and a shared goal that opens those involved to hear each other’s stories, meet in each other’s spaces, and experience one another’s High Holy Days. He values interfaith work because it breaks down the damaging stereotypes and assumptions that poison our world. Reverend Vaughn-West also emphasized the importance of relationships in interfaith social justice-oriented work, and she said, “Doing things like immigrant and refugee advocacy or anti-racism work is very affirming in terms of seeing the justice thread that runs through different faith groups.” She importantly noted that religious groups across faith traditions engaged in social justice activism have more in common with one another than the more fundamentalist groups of their respective traditions, which “really see the call of faith through a difference lens.”

Imam Anwar was equally interested and invested in interfaith work because “that’s how people come to understand each other.” Imam Anwar’s community has a close partnership with Minister Dunn’s and Rabbi Shuval-Weiner’s communities. They work together even outside of the New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta to engage in education and volunteer service for vulnerable populations in the city. Their communities also come together to share meals, recipes, and stories. Minister Dunn echoed Imam Anwar’s sentiment that interfaith action provides meaningful relationships that may not exist otherwise, and Rabbi Shuval-Weiner said, “Getting your hands dirty, rolling up your sleeves together, and accomplishing something builds the greatest relationship because you have to trust your partners when you work together.” Reflecting on her interfaith experiences, Rabbi Shuval-Weiner stressed that no one can do social justice work alone, we share responsibility when working in partnership, and we are stronger together. Simply put, Rabbi Shuval-Weiner said, “I don’t know how we can do anything without interfaith relationship… We all become enriched just from learning from one another through our shared values and working together.”

What does welcome mean to you?

Pastor Hagood: “Welcome is not just ‘Hi, come on in the door.’ Welcome means I’m going to take the time to stop and hear your story and actually develop a relationship. Unless there is a relationship, there is no real welcome.”

Imam Anwar: “The motto of our Masjid is ‘Come as you are, grow as you like.’ Welcome is being allowed to exist as you are and given opportunities to grow.”

Minister Dunn: “Creating space for people to feel at home, connected, and like they belong…We need to be like lighthouses.”

Reverend Vaughn-West: “Welcome means seeing another’s humanness, seeking to know what would make them feel welcome, and working to create that…It means offering to eat together or make a meal together and asking to learn their story.”

Rabbi Shuval-Weiner: “Welcome is open heartedness. Welcome is more than lip service. It’s my sitting at your table, your sitting at my table, and we share our stories, and we share our tea, and we share our biscuits…When the relationship is ongoing, that is true welcoming.”

May we learn from the wisdom of these leaders and the communities they serve. Let us build true relationships and extend complete welcome to the stranger.

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