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Believers: When A Church Becomes A Sanctuary

Kelsie Moore
The Reverend Tom Goldsmith is the head minister of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City.

Rev. Tom Goldsmith’s church, the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, has been in the news recently. In January, his congregation welcomed in a young Honduran mother, Vicky Chavez, and her two young children. Chavez was facing deportation, but rather than head to the airport she came to Goldsmith's church to seek asylum.

Goldsmith said their decision to shield Chavez was informed, in part, by Unitarian beliefs.

“We have absolutely no corner on the truth market," said Reverend Tom Goldsmith. "We have no idea what happens, or at least we're not going to speculate, we don't have the blueprint of heaven or an afterlife."


There are no dogmas or doctrines. Goldsmith said Unitarian belief hangs on two principles: understanding that all people are connected and respecting the inherent worth and dignity of the individual. He said a lot of his congregants found Unitarianism as they were leaving other faith practices, but Goldsmith was born into it and has been preaching for over 40 years.

"We have no guilt. We don't make people fearful. We get together in order to really learn more about how we can live a higher moral standard," said Goldsmith.

Goldsmith said living that "higher moral standard" often leads to social justice, including the decision to become a sanctuary and house people facing deportation. That was decided about ten years ago when he and his congregation studied the matter. For a year they looked at what it meant to be a sanctuary.


“We then had a congregational meeting, which we always hold in the month of May, and by that time, after having fully explored it ... the members of the church voted unanimously to become a sanctuary church," he said. "And I'm proud to say that it's the first church in Salt Lake City that has done this.”


At the end of January, Vicky Chavez, a mother of a 6-year-old and 6-month-old, was scheduled to be deported to Honduras by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Chavez, a Mormon, was connected to the church through a local activist group. She and her children have been living there ever since.

Goldsmith said that ever since Chavez and her children moved in, the church has felt different. 


It has provided us with a tremendous sense of purpose. It is social justice work that is really tangible.

"It has provided us with a tremendous sense of purpose," said Goldsmith. "It is social justice work that is really tangible."


Goldsmith said it’s been a huge group effort. They have hundreds of volunteers — of many different faiths — who take turns helping Chavez with shopping, laundry and anything else she may need. He said they’ve even inspired some other local churches to consider doing the same.


Goldsmith said that while Chavez’s immigration case is uncertain and this situation is not ideal, he and his congregation have really enjoyed the company.


“The 6-year-old has literally stolen the hearts of of everybody, and everyone is just waiting in line to hold the 6-month-old, who is gorgeous. And watching her crawl for the first time, watching her cruise holding onto a table, it's just fabulous. They’re our children," said Goldsmith. "How this happened, it's almost miraculous. It's just been truly a a rich experience for all.”


The Believers Series features conversations with people of faith as they navigate the more complicated and controversial aspects of their beliefs.


Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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