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War resister Rodney Watson reflects on the journey that led him to First United Church in Vancouver. Photo by Bayne Stanley

A sanctuary for conscience

U.S. war resister Rodney Watson asked a Vancouver United church to shelter him after exhausting his refugee-claim options

By Brian Platt

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.

Watson grew up in a rough neighbourhood of Kansas City, Kan. He recalls getting into fist fights as a teenager when gang recruiters tried to draw in his brother. At 14, he was shot in the leg at a house party. He dressed the wound himself. “Yeah, my ghetto credentials are legitimate,” Watson concludes with a wry smirk.

When he lost his well-paying job as an auto handler, Watson decided to join the army as a cook. “I didn’t want to sign up to shoot anybody. I asked them what a cook did and was told it would just be running the kitchen and working with the local nationals who were hired. The worst thing they told me to expect was to have to go out on convoys. I figured I could handle that.”

Watson signed what he thought was a three-year contract to serve with the United States army. In 2005, he deployed to Iraq. Almost immediately, Watson regretted ever having signed up. He found himself operating equipment to detect explosives on vehicles entering the base. He asserts that he witnessed many cases of American soldiers carrying out racist attacks on Iraqi civilians. “Of course not every white soldier there was racist, but every time I saw those attacks, it was by a white person,” Watson says.

After a year-long stint in Iraq, Watson was relieved to be back on American soil. He was even more relieved to be within a year of completing his military service. However, a few months later Watson was informed he would be required to serve another year in Iraq. This would take him past the length of his contract, an action known as “involuntary extension” or the “stop-loss” policy. During times of war, the president authorizes the armed forces to keep personnel deemed essential for national security. Stop-lossing has been a politically controversial issue in the United States, but the Supreme Court has consistently found it to be legal. It is included as a provision in the contract all soldiers sign.

Watson considered his options. He knew there was no way he would go back to Iraq. Some soldiers had hidden out with family or friends elsewhere in the United States, but Watson didn’t want to be constantly worried about getting arrested if the police checked his identification. He knew of others who had fled to Mexico, and he even had friends there. “I didn’t know any Spanish, though. In Canada, I could at least speak the language.”

The issue was finally resolved in a curious way. “I was watching the Tyra Banks show for some reason, and they were doing an episode in Vancouver. That was what planted Vancouver in my mind — it just seemed like paradise.” Watson took a two-week leave from Fort Hood and never returned. He crossed the Canadian border as a visitor and headed directly to  Vancouver.

One rainy night in 2007, Watson wandered the streets of Vancouver until the sun came up. For three months he’d been staying at the Cambie hostel, a seedy but popular establishment where the rooms rent for $20 a night. Now Watson faced a serious problem: the $2,000 he brought to Canada was gone. He didn’t even have enough money left to pay for that night’s accommodations.

“Everybody at the hostel had gotten to know me pretty well by this point,” Watson relates, “and as soon as I got back in, they were asking me why they hadn’t seen me last night.” He decided to explain his situation fully and see what happened. “I was blown away by the response. The folks who worked there — they were all white, and I’ve never been helped by white people like this before — figured they could find a way for me to stay. So they put me to work to pay for the room.” Soon Watson was running food and liquor deliveries.

The staff at the Cambie did something else: they put Watson in touch with the War Resisters Support Campaign (WRSC), a Canadian network created in 2004. Through them, Watson initiated his legal request for refugee status in Canada.

In the meantime, his life normalized. As his case worked its way through Canada’s immigration system, and Parliament debated the larger issues involved, Watson was given a work permit and found a place to live in North Vancouver. One night, waiting for the SeaBus to take him across Burrard Inlet, he met the woman who would eventually become his fiancée. They moved into a place together in Burnaby. A year later she was pregnant.

At the end of last summer, Watson’s refugee status was officially denied, and he was told to leave Canada by September 11 — a striking but coincidental date for the climax of his story. If he turned himself in for deportation, he would be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice in the United States. Desertion often results in about a year of jail time.

Someone from the WRSC suggested he consider taking refuge in a Vancouver church. Within days, Watson was talking to Ric Matthews.

First United is located in what is probably the most impoverished and drug-addled neighbourhood in the entire country: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It does not look like a church from the outside. Most of its interior space is devoted to rooms of bunk beds. A large soup kitchen offers meals. The sanctuary functions as a place for people to sleep; there is talk of removing the pews for more beds. A block away is the only place in North America where heroin addicts can inject themselves at a government-run facility.

Despite the troubles of the First United community, the church does not feel unsafe or unwelcoming. A visitor is almost always met at the door by a volunteer or staffperson with a name tag and walkie-talkie. Most of the people milling around the entrance know each other and joke around.

Having a person in refuge is not an uncommon situation for the church. First United has a written agreement with the Vancouver Police Department: if a person wanted by the police is inside the church, an officer will not enter the building to make an arrest. This is not a binding contract; it’s an “understanding.”

However, elements of Watson’s case are uncommon for First United. “After Rodney approached me, we [the church Board] were immediately aware that this was different than a classic case of sanctuary,” says Matthews. “This one has a more obvious political implication and a higher visibility.”

Matthews acknowledges that the matter required some intense reflection. “It’s not a spelled-out theology. But the church intuitively knows that we need to do this.” On Sept.18, the Board offered to give Watson sanctuary for as long as he would need it.

The Canadian Parliament has passed two bills that support allowing American war resisters to stay in the country. Both bills were non-binding, and the Conservative government has not acted on either. On Sept. 17, the Liberals introduced Bill C-440, a private member’s bill that would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and thus be binding on the government. It would allow foreign military deserters to remain in the country if “sincere moral, political, or religious objection” is found to be behind the action.

Offering church sanctuary to refugees is often technically illegal but has been accepted as a long-standing custom in many countries. While the practice is not covered in The United Church of Canada’s founding document, the church has issued a guide for congregations that suggests sanctuary is implicit in the sections of the Basis of Union dealing with “the care of the poor, and the visiting of the sick.” The national office of the United Church has officially endorsed the WRSC and voiced its opposition to the Iraq war.

At First United, Watson lives at the back of the building in an apartment that used to house a live-in caretaker. His quarters aren’t overly spacious, but they aren’t cramped. One could spend a lot of time in the building and never even know he was living there.

Watson says he isn’t worried about cabin fever. He frequents other parts of the building and suggests he’ll probably start working as a volunteer in the church. His room has its own cooking facilities, although he sometimes eats with the rest of the First United community. He is in contact with a publisher and is writing a book using the computer in his room. Mostly due to his Facebook page, Watson gets one or two visitors a day. Media interviews are still a common occurrence.

He may be in refuge, but Watson isn’t in isolation.

On the day before his birthday, Watson receives a guest. His visitor is an American who fled to Vancouver during the Vietnam War to avoid the draft and is now 68 years old. He comes bearing a gift of two packs of cigarettes. Together they talk about their experiences with the American military and Canadian society.

Watson is prepared for a long stay but knows there are certain things working in his favour. He has a strong and well-established support network. All the opposition parties have taken his side of the issue. Most importantly, he has started a family in Vancouver and plans to live here with his fiancée and son for the rest of his life.

At the same time, he hasn’t made things easy for himself. The more media attention he garners, the less likely it is that immigration officials will offer him concessions. At press conferences, reporters highlight the statements he makes about racist American soldiers. In 2007, he told the Vancouver Sun that he didn’t want to be “an armed guard for oil.”

But in person, Watson is anything but aggressive or overbearing. His casual tone shows almost no sign of stress. “I’ve never been somewhere without violence like this,” he says, a rather startling statement considering that the alleyways outside his window are notorious for their open-air drug use. “I want to stay involved with this church. There is a lot of love here, you can just feel it.” 

Author's photo
Brian Platt is a master of journalism student at Carleton University.
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