A sanctuary for conscience
Tomorrow is Rodney Watson's birthday. His fiancée is keeping the party plans under wrap, and Watson admits that he prefers to be surprised. But one thing can be predicted with certainty: the celebrations will take place inside First United in downtown Vancouver. Watson hasn't stepped outside the church building since September and doesn’t expect to be leaving any time soon. On Nov. 22, he'll be 32 years old.
Watson made international headlines in October when he disclosed that First United was giving him sanctuary as an American war resister, protecting him from arrest and deportation. Shortly after coming to Canada in 2006 to avoid a second deployment to Iraq, Watson applied for refugee status as a conscientious objector. This past September, his claim was denied, and he was ordered to leave the country. Instead of turning himself in to the authorities — something he seriously considered — Watson decided to look to the church for protection.
No American soldier who has fled to Canada in the past eight years has been allowed to stay as a refugee, and three have been deported. However, Watson is the first to refuse to leave when ordered to do so. The result is an unfamiliar situation for him and for the people of First United: together they are now at the centre of a highly visible and politically charged controversy. Watson has taken calls from every major media outlet in Canada and from international organizations such as the BBC. The church has received angry messages from people outraged at the decision to give him refuge.
But there has also been an outpouring of support from the surrounding community; many see the situation as complementary with the social justice and welfare work of the church. Rev. Ric Matthews and the Board of First United are firmly committed to the decision and remain convinced of the theological and moral impetus behind it.
As for Watson, he is mentally preparing himself for what may be a very long stay.
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