Sacred Refuge: Undocumented Immigrants Find Sanctuary in Places of Worship
In the sanctuary of the First and Summerfield United Methodist Church, the pastor shouted over the empty pews in the Korean prayer tradition of tongsung kido.
“Abba!” she cried. “Abba!”
The prayer for God to have mercy on the family rang through the sanctuary.
Fanny Torres Reyes could not join Pastor Juhye Hahn. She was uncomfortable, the pastor recounted to The Politic.
“She holds things in her heart because she has to be strong for her family.”
So the usually soft-spoken Hahn shouted what Reyes could not.
Fanny does not live in the church, but her husband, Marco Reyes Alvarez, does. He has a bedroom tucked snugly next to Pastor Hahn’s office, a furnished bathroom with a self-built shower, a kitchen where, on some nights, the pastor cooks him Korean barbecue, and, of course, the sanctuary. His physical universe is only as big as the First and Summerfield United Methodist Church, the stately building across from the New Haven Green.
Reyes, an undocumented immigrant, is wanted by the U.S. government. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has warned that he will be “arrested and detained” if encountered outside the church. He has not left since August.
President Donald Trump’s September 5 announcement of his plans to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program shook the Reyes family: Two of the children are among the 788,000 reported by Newsweek to benefit from the program. At four that afternoon, Pastor Hahn happened upon Fanny crying in the sanctuary.
“You can cry here,” she told Fanny. “You are in the presence of God.”
First and Summerfield is part of a burgeoning community of New Haven places of worship that offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants targeted for deportation by ICE. But only two New Haven churches—First and Summerfield, led by Pastor Hahn, and Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, under Pastor Hector Luis Otero—have actually hosted an undocumented immigrant. Several other places of worship, including Congregation Mishkan Israel, a synagogue in Hamden led by Rabbi Herbert Brockman, have expressed their readiness to give sanctuary to those in need. Already, half a dozen undocumented immigrants in the New Haven area have contacted Congregation Mishkan Israel to express their interest in entering sanctuary.
Sanctuary churches and synagogues are able to take advantage of a directive issued by ICE in 2011 that prohibits agents from enforcing immigration law in “sensitive locations,” including schools, hospitals, and places of worship. This policy, according to the agency, is meant to ensure that undocumented immigrants are able to use the services of these facilities “without fear or hesitation.”
Despite this policy, ThinkProgress and the Los Angeles Times reported that ICE has detained undocumented immigrants at or near schools. Moreover, the sensitive locations policy, a simple memorandum from the director of ICE, could be easily reversed by another memo or executive order.
Places of worship were protecting undocumented immigrants long before the existence of the sensitive locations policy. The sanctuary movement first developed in the 1980s, when places of worship housed Central American refugees, most from El Salvador and Guatemala, who were traveling through the U.S. to get to Canada. Back then, sanctuary congregations ran covert operations. They usually served as stopping points where a migrant could eat, sleep, and rest safely for a few days, but not stay much longer.
Today, the sanctuary movement mainly serves undocumented immigrants who already live in the U.S. and have been affected by the recent increase in deportation orders. In the first six months of Trump’s presidency, courts issued 31 percent more deportation orders than they had over the same period last year.
Nury Chavarria, a resident of Norwalk, CT, was the target of one of those orders. This summer, she became the first undocumented immigrant to seek sanctuary in a New Haven church.
Chavarria fled her native Guatemala 24 years ago and has lived in the U.S. since. On June 20, ICE informed her that she would have to “self-deport,” meaning she would need to buy her own one-way plane ticket to Guatemala, drive to the airport, and leave the country within the month. But in the early hours of July 21, rather than report to Newark Liberty Airport for a 5:30 AM Guatemala-bound flight, Chavarria, her nine-year-old daughter in tow, decided to seek sanctuary.
Rabbi Brockman, of Congregation Mishkan Israel, told The Politic that he and five other religious leaders had received personal assurances from ICE officers that the agency would continue to abide by the sensitive locations memorandum despite the new administration’s deportation zeal. But local sanctuaries still face the practical challenge of actually taking someone in.
“None of us had really prepared for this,” recalled Rabbi Brockman. “We [faith leaders] had talked about it, we had done studies, we had done meetings.” But when the time came for Chavarria to enter Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, he said, “they were not ready.”
Most places of worship are not equipped to host people for extended, indefinite periods of time. Reyes, a talented carpenter, built himself a shower in the bathroom at First and Summerfield. In Mishkan Israel, an undocumented immigrant would have to share the basement with the 95 children enrolled in the synagogue’s daycare. Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal could only host Chavarria for a short-term stay.
The leadership of First and Summerfield unanimously decided to become a sanctuary church before Pastor Hahn started there in July.
“They didn’t know what that meant. People wanted to help out,” she told The Politic. “We are learning as we are actually doing it.”
Supporters of sanctuary can protect undocumented immigrants in ways beyond physically hosting them. Faith leaders sometimes accompany immigrants to their ICE hearings, where officers decide whether or not to issue an order of deportation. Though accompaniers are not allowed to speak during the hearings, ICE officers are generally responsive to their presence, according to Rabbi Brockman. By his account, every accompaniment has resulted in the granting of a stay.
Communities can help undocumented immigrants before they are forced to enter sanctuary. Earlier this year, a Korean immigrant from Norwalk almost moved into Mishkan Israel but managed to stave off deportation by other means. After campaigners sent letters to the court and several hundred supporters converged on her Roman Catholic church for a prayer service in the immigrant’s honor, the presiding immigration judge granted the woman a stay.
Sanctuary congregations offer undocumented immigrants more basic forms of support, too. Volunteers deliver groceries to Reyes; community members have raised money for his living expenses.
To hear Hahn describe it, granting someone sanctuary is a singular emotional experience. She says love drove her to open the doors of First and Summerfield.
“I don’t think Jesus asked if you have an ID or the right document to receive food or healing grace,” she said. “He just saw the need of the people. So, for us, we saw someone crying, someone needing shelter, and that’s what we do.”
Not all Christians appear to share Pastor Hahn’s interpretation of the Bible. According to Pew Research Center estimates, 58 percent of Christians voted for Trump, who ran on a virulently anti-immigrant platform. During the campaign he pledged to expel “bad hombres” from the country and promised to “create a new special deportation task force” within ICE.
At First and Summerfield, Pastor Hahn has settled into a comfortable, quasi-domestic relationship with Marco Reyes. His living space is next to her office, separated by a wall thin enough to hear through. Hahn and Reyes cook meals and attend Sunday services together, where they share bread and grape juice. To Pastor Hahn, “he’s like a part of the family.”
First and Summerfield stands on unsteady legal ground. While no law prohibits churches from offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, it is unlawful to harbor a fugitive. In July, ICE declared Chavarria a fugitive from justice, forcing Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal to prove that it was hosting a fugitive temporarily rather than harboring one long-term. To this end, the church held a press conference on the day of Chavarria’s entry into sanctuary. Church leaders reasoned that publicizing her stay would negate any claims of “harboring.” In the end, no charges were filed against the church.
A critical resource sanctuary congregations can offer, aside from food and lodging, is time. Entry to sanctuary brings a reprieve from the threat of deportation and allows an undocumented immigrant to mount a legal defense from a position of physical safety. In lucky cases, publicity might attract prominent lawyers.
For Chavarria, her week in sanctuary proved crucial to her ability to stay in the United States. While 200 people and a salsa band gathered for daily rallies in front of Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, attorneys from the Yale Law Immigration Clinic were hard at work proving that Chavarria’s 24 year-old asylum claim had been wrongly denied.
Chavarria originally applied for asylum along with her father and brother, who had escaped from Guatemala with her. Chavarria’s brother and father asked for asylum at a court in New York and received it. But in Massachusetts, Chavarria was not so lucky: The court denied her request, and she has spent the following two and a half decades living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant.
When Yale Law attorneys highlighted this discrepancy before an immigration judge, Chavarria received a temporary stay, and her asylum case was reopened. An hour later, Chavarria was free to leave Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal.
Granting sanctuary can provoke a host of religious and ethical questions as well as legal ones. Pastors and rabbis may face congregants who are hostile to the idea of facilitating defiance against the U.S. government, uncomfortable with a stranger living in their place of worship, or simply unaware of the theological basis for sanctuary.
Pastor Hahn feels lucky that the vast majority of her 30 to 40 regular churchgoers support the decision to host Reyes. But Rabbi Brockman, whose synagogue has historically been active in social justice struggles, recently had a member quit because he “couldn’t stand to sit through one more political speech.” (Diplomat that he is, the rabbi quickly persuaded the man to return.)
Granting sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant has been complicated for Pastor Hahn in other, more personal ways. She is in the process of reframing her theology to accommodate issues like immigration that are, on their face, not obviously religious. It is important for her, she said, to base her actions in faith and her teachings in scripture, and she prays harder now than she did before.
According to Joyce Anne Mercer, a professor at the Yale Divinity School, the sanctuary movement has biblical precursors. In an interview with The Politic, she cited examples from the Hebrew Bible, such as the establishment of cities of refuge for mistaken murderers and the story of Adonijah, son of King David, who found sanctuary at an altar after angering his brother, Solomon. She also referenced the history of the Israelites, who, having been “strangers in the land of Egypt,” are enjoined to grant outsiders the same love they have for their own people.
She also recognized the spirit of the sanctuary movement in the New Testament.
“The Christian gospels include multiple stories of Jesus enjoining followers to embody a new kind of love for their neighbors,” she said. “One that redefines the neighbor from those who are nearby or like themselves, to see a neighbor instead as anyone in need.”
Ever since Marco Reyes moved in, some of the country’s most divisive debates—on the role of religion in public life, on what this nation owes immigrants, on living undocumented in the U.S.—have come to life in the staid white-columned church on College Street.
But Pastor Hahn looks past the complications.
“Some people can criticize us,” she said. “But, for me, that’s just how I interpret how to love our neighbor.”
As she spoke, the voices of Marco Reyes and his attorney carried through the thin dividing wall into her office. They were strategizing his legal defense, probably, but Spanish and legalese rendered the conversation largely indecipherable.
“For me, truth is really simple. If we add more things, it can be complicated,” Pastor Hahn said, her voice barely rising above a whisper.
On her desk lies a marked-up printout from Philippians. The book is a Prison Epistle, written by the Apostle Paul while in confinement.
On the other side of her wall is Marco Reyes, waiting.