Published June 29, 2017
Last January, members of the congregation of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s voted unanimously to become a sanctuary church.
Danielle Johnson, an academic adviser in UB’s Daniel Acker Scholars Program and a deacon at Pilgrim-St. Luke’s, was among them.
Johnson says church members had been discussing taking that action as part of their strategic plan, but they did not expect the vote to happen when it did.
“We had a planning committee that convened in 2014 to discuss providing care and support for the most vulnerable populations,” Johnson says. “I don’t think we were using the term ‘sanctuary’ at that time.
“We had not been planning on becoming a sanctuary until at least a year from now — until 2018 or so. However, with the way that we saw things progressing and the need for care for the vulnerable populations we saw — especially those who are seeking asylum — it became evident to us we needed to act now,” says Johnson, who holds a PhD in higher education from UB.
Johnson started visiting Pilgrim-St. Luke’s, located in Buffalo on Richmond Avenue near the Elmwood Village, in 2008 on the recommendation of a good friend, Marsha Jackson.
“When I first started visiting the church, I loved it but I still identified as Catholic,” Johnson says. “By 2012, I actually joined the church and changed my religious identity to Protestant, which is Pilgrim-St. Luke’s’ denomination.”
For the next four years, Johnson chaired the Pilgrim-St. Luke’s Christian Education Ministry, running children’s programming for the church.
“I love working with kids but I realized I wanted to grow in my own spirituality and in my faith,” she says. “When I became a deacon at the beginning of this year, it allowed me to begin serving and focusing on the needs of adults and adult faith development, and not solely on children’s faith development.”
Johnson says becoming a deacon has enabled her to grow spiritually, along with her advocacy for vulnerable populations — which she describes as social justice through action.
“I feel advocacy and activism is a two-way street,” she says. “It is building relationships with people with whom you not only have common experience with, but also others who are disenfranchised in different ways, especially those who may be the most vulnerable.”
Pilgrim-St. Luke’s has always advocated for LGBTQ rights and racial-ethnic equality, Johnson notes.
“Our pastor, Justo Gonzalez, came to our church in 2013,” Johnson says. “He has been intentionally radical in not only encouraging the way that we show love, but also how we help others … such as stepping up, stepping forward to provide shelter and assistance to those who come to our church seeking those things.”
Johnson says people have come to Pilgrim-St. Luke’s from California, Texas, North Carolina and the Midwest, as well as Central America. “We have helped 29 adults and 11 children successfully reach their destination in Canada this year.
“We know this is a risk and there is the possibility of the federal government targeting groups like ours in the future,” she says. “The expectations that ICE would not go into sensitive locations may or may not stay the same.
“We know this could change — but going into churches across the country, we believe, would not be welcomed.
“We receive these individuals as guests in our church, but we are also focused on providing them with the support and help that they need,” she says.
“One of the things I have been so moved by is realizing how many similarities there are between someone like myself and our guests.”
Johnson recalls one family who briefly stayed at Pilgrim-St. Luke’s, having fled violence in Venezuela. Of the five family members, only the mother spoke a little English and Johnson spoke very little Spanish.
“So, the night before they left for Canada, she and I sat for an hour on Google Translate on our smartphones, literally translating sentence by sentence.”
As their conversation went on, Johnson found out the woman was a psychiatrist. She had finished her MD in Venezuela. She told Johnson that when she arrived in Canada, one of the things she wanted to do was continue her postdoctoral work.
“Now, the thing is, I finished my PhD in 2013,” Johnson says. “And there is something almost inexplicable about that process, the doctoral process — hers is an MD, mine is a PhD — but there is something among women of color who finish doctoral work. There is this tenacity that you develop, this grit almost. I sensed that in her and I think she sensed that in me.
“Communicating that way, being able to support each other as two women of color who both finished terminal degrees, enabled us to share the resolve that you need to reach this goal,” Johnson says.
In addition to her sanctuary work in Pilgrim-St. Luke’s, Johnson is also involved in criminal justice reform in Buffalo as co-chair of the Justice and Opportunity Coalition, along with Open Buffalo Executive Director Franchelle Hart and Community Outreach Coordinator Denise Walden.
“This is through Open Buffalo,” Johnson says, “and part of my work with the coalition is serving as a program associate … in collaboration with another organization called Prisoners are People Too.”
She explains that Prisoners are People Too provides support and advocacy for people who are presently incarcerated, as well as their families, and individuals who were formerly incarcerated. It was founded in 2005 by Karima Amin, who is an African storyteller.
“Both Karima and her partner, George Baba Eng, provide an amazing space for people to learn about the extreme injustices that prisoners face, both while incarcerated and when they are released,” Johnson says.
She points to two other organizations in Buffalo that she says she has learned from: Just Resisting, a group of organizers, activists and artists of color who, she says, has “an amazing way of approaching many different social issues,” and Showing up for Racial Justice, which has a white membership focused on raising awareness among this segment of the population.
She cites Natasha Soto, Shaketa Redden and James Lopez from Just Resisting as having been instrumental in her growth as an activist, as well as Erin Heaney and Amy Vossen-Vukelic from Showing Up for Racial Justice.
Johnson adds that her advocacy work on behalf of those who are incarcerated is part of her complete picture.
Does it fit in with being a deacon? “It absolutely does,” she says. “Individuals who are incarcerated are also part of the vulnerable population.
“I work together with African-Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans … who are all members of underrepresented populations. Individuals of color are incarcerated at a much higher rate than the white portion of the country. They represent the majority of the prison population,” she explains.
“So for me this comes back to doing advocacy for members of vulnerable populations. Because for refugees, the way that their humanity is not part of the narrative that is spoken about is the same for prisoners and those who are incarcerated.”