On August 14 a beloved Salem minister, known for his pacifism, appeared at the Portland field office of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, ICE to express his conscience.

Pastor Rick Davis, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem (UUCS) since 1993, journeyed to ICE along with other clergy to put pressure, he says, on ICE to release 122 men still housed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon.

“Along with five other fellow members of the clergy,” Davis says, “I engaged in an act of civil disobedience by ignoring the command of police officers from the Department of Homeland Security to cease blocking the entrance to ICE in Portland.”

The arrests came one week after authorities arrested three other clergy in a similar protest. It was three weeks after a larger group of demonstrators left a round-the-clock encampment at ICE that lasted 38 days.

“This was not a hasty decision,” Davis says of his participation. “It was the first time I’ve committed an act of civil disobedience, and I felt myself crossing a spiritual threshold when I was sitting there refusing to move.  My emotions ran deep at that moment, as I thought of all who are suffering now at the hands of our government and I realize that if I am to be true to my commitment to love and justice” – that he must remain and be arrested.

Photo by Andrea Balcavage

The peaceful action was organized by IMIrJ (an acronym that sounds like, “emerge” and stands for Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice). IMIrJ is a coalition of 140 Oregon faith communities that include congregations of every stripe, including Sikh, Jewish, Presbyterian and Muslim, all called by faith and conscience to respond to the suffering of immigrant peoples.

IMIrJ’s goal to pressure ICE to release men imprisoned at Sheridan prison while their cases are being considered is a fair and considered one, Davis says. “Before the Trump administration, it was standard practice not to incarcerate those seeking asylum, and it worked well. Almost everyone showed up for their hearings – so incarcerating those seeking asylum is completely unnecessary, cruel and also expensive for taxpayers.”

Davis noted that the six clergy members who were arrested for blocking the ICE entrance were treated mostly with kindness by law enforcement. The officer in charge asked the group several times if it really intended to risk arrest; the clergy repeatedly affirmed they fully intended to engage in this act of civil disobedience and said they would face and accept the legal consequences. 

“The police officers seemed reluctant to have to arrest us – they were generally very kind to us. But then, we are white, well-established clergy in the community, so our social privilege probably protected us from harsh treatment.”

Davis and the IMIrJ colleagues are preparing to act again because, he says, “ICE, (at the behest of the Trump administration) is enforcing laws in excessively cruel and disruptive ways, and indeed, have been shown to transgress the law in their enforcement…”

By separating asylum seekers who present themselves properly to immigration from their children, and then proceeding to incarcerate them, Davis says, “ICE is creating a reign of fear and terror in our country [and] it is growing at an alarming rate.”

America’s government, Davis notes, “is acting more and more like a fascist dictatorship than an enlightened democracy. Its abuses of power must be challenged and resisted. I cannot sit idly by while this is going on.”

Davis says that on August 14 he felt the love and support of those who blessed the clergy members just prior to their arrest and says he has also felt “unprecedented love and support” from his UUCS congregation. Most did not know he was taking this momentous step, though he did inform the church’s board of directors a few days before so they wouldn’t be surprised if he appeared in the news. 

“During this time when the forces of bigotry, fear and intolerance are finding a willing partner in the president, who is morally unfit for office,” he says,”it is vital that citizens resist. Today churches and congregations are being called to ground this resistance in the principles of nonviolence by our example. We are indebted to the example of peaceful resistance during the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”


Photo at top: Salem’s Rev. Rick Davis (on the left) and other clergy participate in ICE protest