TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A well-known church in Tucson has grown larger.
The Southside Presbyterian Church was the first in the country to offer sanctuary to refugees. Hundreds of churches in the U.S. have since followed suit.
On Saturday, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held for a brand-new building that will allow the congregation to expand on the work it began decades ago.
More than 100 people stopped by the unveiling of the new fellowship hall and kitchen.
The church, originally built in 1906, underwent several renovations and expansions over the years.
Church leaders say the old hall, built in the 1950’s, was extremely worn down. The building weathered storms, cracks in the walls and countertops, cramped spaces and lots of foot traffic. It’s where thousands of people seeking a better life received free legal counsel. It’s also where hundreds of homeless folks were fed.
“We’ve known for a long time that we needed to rebuild,” said Reverend Alison Harrington, the Pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church. “The old facilities were used well.”
About two years ago, the church asked the community for help. It didn’t take long for donations to stream in.
“Most capital campaign people will tell you that the maximum we would have been able to raise would have been about $840,000,” said Harrington.
However, the church received roughly $2.4 million from donors, both near and far.
“It’s very much a work of faith,” said Margo Cowan, who manages the Keep Tucson Together clinic. “We have much more space to bring families in to do our work, we are very excited about that!”
The ‘Sanctuary Movement’ began in the 1980’s when the Presbyterian Church welcomed in families fleeing the Civil Wars in Central America regardless of the fact the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees seeking asylum.
In 2014, the congregation ramped up its efforts during a growing number of deportations under the Obama Administration. Now under the Trump Administration, Cowan says their work is desperately needed to keep families together.
“This is a terrible, terrible racist moment in our history,” said Cowan. “Our neighbors are demonized, and they shouldn’t be. They should be held up.”
Legal services were temporarily moved to a library while construction was underway. Now that the building is complete, volunteers will resume work at the Presbyterian church.
Meals will also be served to the homeless again.
“[For the last year and a half] we have had this void in our hearts, we couldn’t do what we loved doing,” said Douglas Larson, a Church Elder. “Now, we are coming back home.”
Larson says they are returning to a kitchen that’s nearly three times the size of the old one.
“We usually serve about 600 plates a week,” he said. “This is a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen … [meaning] we know we are serving food that is safe to our brothers and sisters from the streets.”
Larson says starting January 24th, 2020, meals will be served on Mondays and Fridays.
In February, free legal counsel will be offered on the first and third Saturday of each month at the church.
“We are called to love our neighbors, and how better to love them then to love them then to make sure they can stay together with their families here in our communities?” asked Harrington.