Faith leaders protest immigration enforcement policies outside building named for Minnesota bishop

By Kelsey Schuster and Emilia Allen
Posted Oct 30, 2019

An ecumenical group of worshippers celebrate the Eucharist Oct. 29 during a demonstration outside the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Lauren Smythe

[Episcopal Church in Minnesota] As the dawn sky turned pink over the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building in Minneapolis on Oct. 29, the faithful of Minnesota bundled up against the first frozen morning of the season to hold vigil, to protest, and to make their voices heard. Their demand: Evict ICE – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – from the federal building named for Minnesota’s first bishop, or remove his name from the building.

“What is happening to immigrants in the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building is in direct opposition to the values, theology and policy of The Episcopal Church,” the Rev. Devon Anderson, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, said during a press conference held outside the building. “To us, it is an intolerable irony to have the name of the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, an icon of human rights and compassion, on the front of this building in which so much injustice and cruelty occurs on a daily basis.”

Nearly 300 participated in the gathering, which included a celebration of the Eucharist. Episcopal clergy and laypeople joined with members of the Minnesota Council of Churches and the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration in a busy parking lot between a high-traffic commuter rail line and the imposing federal building.

Before worship began, Minnesota Bishop Brian N. Prior acknowledged and invoked the site’s proximity to Bdote, the “Eden” of the Dakota people, who consider it their most holy place. “The Whipple Building lies just a stone’s throw from where the Dakota believe all of creation began and where Bishop Whipple walked among a beloved Dakota community,” Prior said. “We denounce the oppression that took place against Dakota people then and the oppression that is being perpetuated against immigrants today.”

About 300 people, including clergy and laypeople from the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, joined the vigil and demonstration Oct. 29 outside the Bishop Henry Whipple Building in Minneapolis, Minnesota, known as a five-state hub for federal immigration enforcement. Photo: Lauren Smythe

Opponents of ICE’s enforcement operations in the region see the Whipple building as a microcosm of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration violations, which The Episcopal Church has criticized for upending lives, separating families and disrupting communities. Minnesota’s Twin Cities are known as a hub for federal immigration enforcement across five states – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota – and at the center of that hub is the Whipple building, which houses an immigration court.

“The activities that go on this building are a violation, not only of the spirit of this sacred land, but a violation of that name, Bishop Whipple, that stands on this building,” said the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, representing the Minnesota Council of Churches.

Bishop Henry Whipple

Bishop Henry Whipple led The Episcopal Church in Minnesota from 1859 until his death in 1901. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

Whipple, consecrated as bishop in 1859, spent more than four decades establishing The Episcopal Church’s roots in the newly founded state while leading missionary work among the American Indian tribes of Minnesota. In 1862, he successfully lobbied President Abraham Lincoln to spare most of the 303 Dakota warriors who had been sentenced to death for an uprising that year.

Whipple died in 1901, and the federal building in Minneapolis was named in his honor soon after its dedication in 1969.

Now, 50 years later, immigrant detainees are brought to the Whipple building by van wearing orange jumpsuits and shackled at the wrists and ankles, said the Rev. Letha Wilson-Barnard, rector at Holy Apostles Episcopal Church in St. Paul. “These are our neighbors, our friends, our family, our co-workers, who themselves came here to seek a better life,” Wilson-Barnard said. “Many leave through this gate immediately to the airport for deportation, not even able to say goodbye to their families.”

After the Eucharist was shared among the protesters, a coalition of clergy and others attempted to enter the sally port of the Whipple building, where detainees are held, in order to offer both detainees and officers a chance to receive the Eucharist.

The group was immediately stopped by an officer pulling his vehicle across the drive, while informing them that if they kept walking, they would be arrested. For 15 minutes, the group asked to be allowed to see the detainees, to offer solace to those detained and to the guards, and were denied.

“For us, you are our brother, and all the people in this building are our brothers and sisters,” the Rev. Lisa Wiens Heinsohn, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, said to the officer. “That is why we are here.”

At the conclusion of the Eucharist, the group moved to the front of the federal building for the press conference. In addition to calling for a change in name or use of the building, the group expressed support for legislation to make Minnesota a sanctuary state, meaning state agencies would be barred from devoting resources to federal immigration enforcement activities.

The Rev. Shari Prestemon, conference minister of the United Church of Christ, concluded the event with an invitation: “My invitation to all of us today is to go further. … I am announcing this morning the creation of the Minnesota Sanctuary State Coalition. The first meeting of this new coalition will convene next month to begin this work to make Minnesota the 10th sanctuary state in the nation.”