Disciple: Open Hearts
By Christine McTaggart
O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p.840)
When asked to describe St. Barnabas, Greensboro, the Rev. Randall Keeney, rector, refers to this prayer. “It jumps to mind every time,” he said. “It describes the mentality and approach of the people of St. Barnabas.”
Known in recent months as the church offering sanctuary to Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, an undocumented woman facing deportation and the first in North Carolina ever to take public sanctuary, St. Barnabas has a long history of genuine welcome and inclusion of everyone who walks through its open doors.
Founded in 1967, progressive views and concern for social justice are built into the foundation of the church. “It’s a very understanding congregation,” said Keeney. “A lot of our folks have been involved in social justice issues for years.”
The work continues, and the parishioners of St. Barnabas remain active in the community. “We have people involved in prison ministry, Cursillo, animal rescue, hospital volunteering, you name it,” said Keeney. “The people here are very passionate about what they do and want to do.”
One of the things they want to continue to do is ensure that every person attending St. Barnabas finds no impediment to navigating the church, regardless of physical ability.
“I think we’re one of the most accessible churches in the diocese,” said Keeney. “Anyone with any disability can get anywhere in this building.” Several years ago, St. Barnabas remodeled their central altar to improve access. Formerly located on an elevated surface, it was rebuilt so it is now flat to the floor and approachable by all, with no barriers between the faithful and the altar. A current project underway is the development of an accessible path and gathering place in the eight-acre wood that surrounds the church.
Keeney credits their deacon, the Rev. Leslie Bland, as instrumental in helping the church develop to where it is today. “She works tirelessly, patiently and very lovingly to help folks understand the needs of those with challenges.”
With a focus on inclusivity and radical hospitality, the path that eventually led to offering Ortega sanctuary seems like a natural progression. Natural, perhaps, but not necessarily a straight or easy one.
On May 31, 2017, St. Barnabas made headlines when it became the first Episcopal Church to become an active sanctuary site actually housing someone seeking refuge. Ortega was making history herself, not just for taking refuge, but because she is the first person to seek sanctuary in North Carolina.
Ortega is a mother of four from Asheboro whose story has become well-known. A refugee of violence in her native Guatemala, she came to the United States in 1994 and applied for asylum status. Her petition was denied, but she stayed on a work permit as she went through a six-year appeals process. In 1999, she returned to Guatemala to care for a daughter suffering a life-threatening illness and re-entered the U.S. without permission. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency revoked her work permit and ordered her to leave the country. In 2011, she was taken into custody and released. Since then, she reported to the ICE office in Charlotte for every required check in. Each time, she was granted an extension until her check-in in April 2017, when she was told she had until May 31 to leave the country.
Ortega has lived in this country for 23 years. She is married to a U.S. citizen, and two of her children were born here. She has spent tens of thousands of dollars and untold amounts of time, doing everything asked of her by an immigration system that still will not change her legal status. Faced with permanent separation from her family, she decided to risk everything and seek sanctuary.
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED
When the American Friends Services Committee (AFSC) called Keeney to ask if St. Barnabas was willing to provide sanctuary to Ortega, it was not a call out of the blue. St. Barnabas had been in a discernment process around sanctuary for almost four years.
It began when Keeney met an undocumented young man from El Salvador. Introduced by a friend at AFSC, Keeney spoke with him and invited him to come to church. The young man accepted the invitation, bringing with him his wife and young child. The congregation welcomed him with the same warmth they extended to all newcomers, and as they heard the young man’s stories, they wanted to help. They hosted the family at dinner and assisted financially. When the Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple learned about the efforts being made to help the man, the Diocese, too, lent its support toward the removal of tattoos that left him vulnerable to targeting by gangs.
In the course of walking with the young man, the question of sanctuary came up and whether St. Barnabas would consider it. The congregation knew it was not a simple answer, and so conversation began. It started with Keeney and the vestry, and continued to include the congregation. It was discussed in adult Sunday school, in sermons and in more congregational conversations. Leadership did research and consulted legal experts. They allowed everyone at St. Barnabas to have a voice and ensured each voice was heard.
The conclusion was reached that if the young man needed it, they were ready to offer him sanctuary. His situation did not come to that, and the matter was set aside for a while.
When AFSC called in April 2017, the response was not an automatic “yes.” Once again, the leadership of St. Barnabas began conversation, first with each other and then with the congregation as a whole. The overall feeling had not changed since the last time the option was considered.
“The vestry was unanimous in its affirmative response,” said Keeney. “And when it was taken to the congregation, not one person spoke against it.” With the congregation ready to undertake the effort, research and all due diligence done, upgrades to the building ready to go, St. Barnabas agreed to host Ortega. With her deportation date looming, she moved in to the church on May 27.
THE LONG WAIT
As of mid-July, Ortega remains at St. Barnabas. Though her constant wish is to return home to her family, it is understood it will take time for political leaders, civic leaders, ICE and any other agency involved to work through the red tape to re-evaluate and potentially change her legal status.
In the meantime, she keeps busy sewing blankets, pillows and quilts; visiting with her grandchildren; and talking with the constant stream of visitors, whether they are the volunteers who stay with her at all times or well-wishers who want to bolster her hopes. “In many ways, Juana ministers to us as much as we do to her,” said Keeney. “Everyone wants to meet her and talk to her. I’ve never seen her lose patience or back away from anybody.”
Working together to help Ortega has brought the congregation together in an even deeper way and made the issue of immigration more urgent.
“It’s easy to avoid learning about or to forget the struggles of other people,” said Keeney. “Juana has brought the concerns, hopes and dreams forward in an extremely graceful way. It’s been very personal, face-to-face, eye-to-eye work, and it’s opened the eyes of everyone in this congregation to the needs of the immigrant community and made them vulnerable to the work God is calling us to do.”
St. Barnabas is a church that lives in to its identity of social justice, the environment and active compassion. Whether it’s offering sanctuary, ensuring all who enter have equal access to the altar or being active in the community, “people’s hearts are open,” said Keeney. They see “they can do things in a real way to make a difference in a person’s life.”
Christine McTaggart is the communications director for the Diocese of North Carolina.