Misael Perez is a young man from Guatemala who now lives in Phoenix. Two years ago, he faced deportation after a traffic stop. While lawyers fought his case, he entered sanctuary at Shadow Rock UCC. He lived at the church for four months, until he won a stay of removal and a chance to resume his normal life, for now. His cousin, however, was deported back to Guatemala and five months later, was found dead and dismembered.
I met Misael last month at an organizing meeting for the sanctuary movement in North County. Hearing his family’s story really brought home to me the danger that drives many Central American people to try to live in the United States without authorization, and the economic exploitation and fear people face while living as undocumented immigrants.
Sanctuary is a partnership between immigrant communities and faith communities. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has stated that it will not enter churches to arrest people under most circumstances, a person deportation will be taken into sanctuary by the congregation. The goals are to convince officials to set aside deportation orders, and to draw attention to injustices and suffering within the current immigration system. The person or family in sanctuary lives in the church and doesn’t leave the property until they no longer face immediate deportation.
The North County Immigration Task Force, with whom I have worked and which organizes for immigrant rights in our area, is asking congregations to support a sanctuary effort here. A church is in the process of getting ready to host someone in sanctuary, and will need help with volunteers to bring food, as well as faith communities willing to publically state their support. I hope our community can find a way to participate.
In my April 17 sermon, “Churching Dangerously,” I talked about the First Unitarian Society of Denver, which became a sanctuary congregation for an undocumented immigrant named Arturo Hernandez Garcia. Arturo had remained in the US after a visa expired, and was facing deportation away from his family, including a US citizen daughter. The experience of offering sanctuary was challenging, powerful, and transformational for the congregation. Putting their commitment to immigrant justice into concrete action meant they related to this commitment in a new way: it wasn’t just an abstract idea, but a matter of a person they knew and cared about. The congregation also radically expanded their network, and became known in activist and immigrant communities as a church that could be counted on.
While we may not be able to physically host someone in our facility, I recommend we explore ways we can help. It could make a big difference to a local family and to our own congregational life.