After Six Months of Sanctuary, a Church Becomes a Family Home
Undocumented immigrant Juana Luz Tobar Ortega took sanctuary at St. Barnabas, Greensboro, on May 31
By Summerlee Walter
On May 31, 2017, St. Barnabas, Greensboro, became the first Episcopal church in the United States publically to provide physical sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant facing deportation. Juana Luz Tobar Ortega has now spent six months in sanctuary. She has not set foot outside of St. Barnabas for 183 days because, while she wears an ankle bracelet alerting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to her location at all times, the agency has a policy of avoiding enforcement actions at sensitive locations, including schools, hospitals and churches. As a result, Ortega, her family and the people of St. Barnabas have had to adjust to a new norm of family and church life.
Ortega, a refugee from violence in her native Guatemala, arrived in the United States seeking asylum in 1994. After her initial petition was denied, she stayed in the country on a work permit during a six-year appeals process. Ortega’s efforts toward receiving asylum were derailed in 1999, when she risked the return to Guatemala in order to care for her daughter as she fought a life-threatening illness. Ortega re-entered the United States with a false visa, and ICE revoked her work permit and ordered her to leave the country. In 2011, Ortega was taken into custody and released. Since then, she has reported for all of her required ICE check-ins, receiving an extension each time until her April 2017 check-in, when she was told she had until May 31 to leave the country.
As Ortega faced an increasingly untenable situation – defy ICE and risk the consequences or leave her American citizen husband, children and grandchildren and return to the dangers facing her in her home country – St. Barnabas was discerning its own future. For nearly four years, the church had been discussing as a congregation whether to offer itself as a place of physical sanctuary. The conversation began soon after the congregation embraced a young, undocumented El Salvadorian man and his family, offering them hospitality and financial assistance. As the relationship grew, the topic of sanctuary arose for the first time. The clergy and vestry engaged the entire congregation in the conversation and sought advice from legal experts, and the people of St. Barnabas decided to offer sanctuary should the family need it. In the end, the family did not choose to take physical sanctuary.
The discussion remained dormant until this April, when the American Friends Services Committee reached out to St. Barnabas about Ortega’s situation. Again, the clergy and vestry engaged the entire congregation in conversation, and again the answer was yes. Despite the extensive preparations, both spiritual and practical, the church undertook, nothing can truly prepare a community for the experience of offering long-term physical sanctuary.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
According to the Rev. Randall Keeney, vicar of St. Barnabas, Ortega’s family and volunteers from the community are instrumental in making sanctuary work at the church. Ortega is never left alone; although St. Barnabas is clear no one from the church will interfere with any ICE enforcement actions, neither will the church allow Ortega to go through her ordeal alone. Volunteers stay with her 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The day is split into four shifts: 9 a.m.-1 p.m., 1 p.m.-5 p.m., 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. and an overnight shift. Deacon the Rev. Leslie Bland handles all of the scheduling through a combination of an online system and sign-up sheets in the church. Approximately one-third of the volunteers are not members of St. Barnabas but come from the broader community.
Just as Ortega has become part of the life of St. Barnabas, St. Barnabas has become part of daily life for Ortega’s family. Since she cannot leave the church, almost all family celebrations now happen there. The family has hosted cook-outs and birthday parties, a Fourth of July celebration and Thanksgiving dinner – all the traditions of their regular family life now include St. Barnabas.
“When you welcome someone into sanctuary, you don’t just welcome them, you welcome their whole family,” Keeney explained. “The hopes, anxieties, concerns, joys and disappointments of the family become the concerns of our parish. The depth of intimacy has been surprising.”
Ortega has become a valued part of the congregational life at St. Barnabas. She cleans, reads Scripture and sings during worship services, “in addition to being a sweet, gracious person to those staying with her,” according to Bland. “It’s like we’ve inherited the grace of someone struggling herself who also has the capacity to give to freely of herself and her talents.” Among other acts of hospitality, Ortega and her family graciously prepare food for the volunteers who stay with her.
A LONG ROAD
As the congregation at St. Barnabas surrounds Ortega with daily support, they also continue to advocate for her to stay in the country and, after 23 years, finally reach a permanent solution that allows her to remain with her family. Members of the church are conducting letter-writing campaigns and speaking with elected officials in the city, state and national government. This summer, in partnership with Congregational United Church of Christ, St. Barnabas arranged a benefit concert in downtown Greensboro for Ortega and Minerva Cisneros Garcia, an undocumented immigrant who took sanctuary with her two youngest sons in Congregational UCC on June 28, 2017.Garcia has since had her deportation order vacated by a Texas judge. For Ortega, though, there has been no progress through the legal system or aid from elected officials. She recently engaged the Winston-Salem attorney who helped Garcia win her appeal.
The multiple steps Ortega has taken and continues to take as she fights her legal battle are pricey, costing the family tens of thousands of dollars. Before she took sanctuary, Ortega worked at a furniture textile company and brought in approximately one-third of her family’s income, income they no longer have. St. Barnabas had been helping the family financially at a rate of 50 percent what Ortega had earned, but the funds raised through the concert and donations that initially poured in during Ortega’s early time in sanctuary have dwindled. St. Barnabas is now struggling to maintain a reserve for sanctuary-related emergencies while continuing to provide direct financial help to the Ortega family.
St. Barnabas hopes to raise funds with a cookie walk on December 9. Twenty percent of proceeds from cookie sales will go directly to Juana, who will also sell crafts she’s made.
Keeney encourages churches interested in helping undocumented immigrants in their own communities to engage immigration and immigration policy and get to know undocumented immigrants under threat of deportation.
“That’s where healing happens, in relationships,” he said. “Where politics is really lived out, where justice is lived out, is in relationships between folks who disagree on issues but who agree on their love for each other as individuals.
“Immigration policy isn’t just about issues, it’s about people, and the people who can teach us the most are immigrants and people who struggle in that system.”
In the meantime, as Ortega, her family and her supporters continue to advocate for a permanent solution, family life and the life of the church continue. As Christmas approaches, St. Barnabas is finding ways to include Ortega and her family in the preparations and celebrations. On December 13, St. Barnabas will receive a visit from a Las Posadas procession arranged by the Rev. Audra Abt, diocesan missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministry. Keeney’s even willing to bend liturgical tradition a bit to allow Ortega and her family to experience the most normal family Christmas possible under the circumstances.
“We might cheat on the Episcopal no Christmas decorations during Advent tradition since this is Juana’s home and she wants to celebrate with her family.”