In October 2017, the Rev. Renee McKenzie got a call from the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia asking if she would provide sanctuary for an undocumented immigrant family whose deportation was ordered. Instinctually, she agreed.
“I have to be honest, I hadn’t really thought it through carefully before I said yes,” she said. “My instinct was to say yes because there’s no way I could not support this family. There’s no way we could not provide sanctuary if we had the ability to do so, and we did. So I said yes.”
McKenzie has been a clergy member at the Church of the Advocate on Diamond Street near 18th for six years and has consistently fought for social justice issues. She believes she has a responsibility to be an advocate for change — even when faced with significant risks.
Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, who is taking sanctuary in the Church of the Advocate with her four children, was ordered to leave the country by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency by Dec. 15, 2017. Hernandez said she fled an unsafe environment in Mexico in 2015 after her brother and two nephews were killed by organized drug traffickers.
On Jan. 29, the children — Fidel, Keyri, Yoselin and Edwin — left the church for the first time in six weeks to attend school, which put them at risk of deportation. McKenzie and city officials held an event to see them off.
But Hernandez and her children aren’t the only ones who run the risk of punishment for taking sanctuary in McKenzie’s church. According to federal law, a person who houses an undocumented immigrant could face up to five years of imprisonment — meaning McKenzie is also at risk.
“When you’re confronted with the idea that, you know, you could go to jail for five years, you have to think about it, but the answer wouldn’t change,” McKenzie said, laughing. “I have a responsibility to fight for social justice.”
The Church of the Advocate has a long history of activism in North Philadelphia. The church was the first Episcopal church in the world to ordain women. And in 1968, the National Conference of Black Power was held there. The Church of the Advocate also hosted the Black Panther Conference of 1970, marking it a stronghold of civil rights.
To illustrate the church’s role in civil rights is a series of murals painted by Walter Edmonds and Richard Watson from 1973-1976 that line the walls within the church.
The murals depict important moments in the struggle for Black liberation in America and inspire McKenzie.
“These murals tell me constantly that I have a responsibility, because they hold me accountable,” she said.
McKenzie initially went to seminary in 1992, with the intention of becoming a teacher. Since then, she has taught at local universities like Temple. She was a teaching assistant in the religion department for five years, while working toward her Ph.D., which she completed in 2005.
“I just love being on a college campus,” McKenzie said. “I am one of those people that, surround me with books or people struggling with ideas, there’s nothing better in the world.”
But McKenzie is also outspoken against the university. Her church is the main meeting place for the Stadium Stompers, a group of students, faculty and community residents who oppose Temple’s proposed on-campus football stadium. She has attended several Stadium Stompers’ rallies to express her disapproval of the stadium, which Temple announced it will submit for approval to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission in the coming weeks.
Two of the other pressing issues McKenzie said North Philadelphia is facing are education and trauma.
“We need to understand what trauma is and how we can help people be healed from trauma and how we can minimize its impact, especially for the kids today,” she said.
The Church of the Advocate just began a project called The Healing Project, which is a faith-based, trauma-informed approach to community healing. To address the issue of education, she also opened a philosophy discussion group called The Saturday Free School, which is held each Saturday and is open to the public.
McKenzie’s caretaking role isn’t unnoticed by her congregation and other community residents.
“She truly, truly cares for the community,” said Glenda Bryant, a parish administrator and minister at the Church of the Advocate. “She’s firm but patient and always willing to give someone a chance to do better.”
McKenzie, who has lived in and around Philadelphia all her life, believes there is an “advocate spirit” specific to the city, and she wants to continue the tradition of fighting for social justice to bring positive change to the community, even when that means wading into political waters like challenging current immigration policies.
“I’m not wary of getting involved in political situations,” McKenzie said. “I’m wary of getting involved with political people. So, when I say a political situation, for me, it is about, ‘Am I willing…to fight for justice?’ And I am fully committed to that. Wherever I see injustice, I will respond to it.”