St. Barnabas, Greensboro, Offers Sanctuary to Immigrant Facing Deportation
By Diocesan House
Over the Memorial Day weekend, the leadership and congregation of St. Barnabas, Greensboro, took the prayerfully considered step of offering temporary shelter to Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, an immigrant facing deportation on May 31.
Ortega is a mother of four who lives in Asheboro and has worked at the same textile company in High Point as a sewing machine operator for the last eight years. She is a highly valued employee with an expertise in sewing that, though once abundant, has become somewhat rare. She arrived in 1994 from Guatemala, fleeing violence, and applied for asylum status. Her petition was denied, but she was allowed a work permit while she filed an appeal, which took six years. In 1999, her eldest daughter in Guatemala suffered a life-threatening illness, and Ortega left the country and returned without permission in order to be her daughter’s caregiver. ICE subsequently revoked her work permit, ordered her to leave the country, and in 2011 took her into custody, then released her a week later. Since then, she has reported to the Charlotte ICE office periodically for required check-ins, but last month, instead of accepting her attorney’s plea for a stay of removal, ICE ordered her to prepare for voluntary departure, telling her she has until May 31 to leave the country, potentially leaving her husband, kids, uncle and cousins behind.
Caring for her family in the U.S. and maintaining her highly valued role with her employer are not the only concerns. A return to her community where the threat of violence remains puts Ortega’s life at risk.
The decision to offer Ortega sanctuary is not a step St. Barnabas took lightly. For more than a year, the Rev. Randall Keeney, rector; the Rev. Leslie Bland, deacon; the vestry; and the congregation went through a discernment process that included research, consultation with legal professionals, prayer and conversation. Because of this care and deep consideration, when they were contacted by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), with whom they had developed a relationship during the course of their discernment process, about providing sanctuary to Ortega, leadership and the vestry unanimously voted to do so.
“As it says in Leviticus (19:34), ‘the alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God’,” said the Rev. Randall Keeney, rector at St. Barnabas. “St. Barnabas has struggled with this Biblical call for some time. Our prayers and our companionship with the immigrant community led us to this place. Our simple hope is to support Juana and her family as they so bravely cling to the dignity given to them by God."
LEGACY OF SUPPORT
The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina has supported immigrants in North Carolina for generations. In recent times, the Diocesan Convention has been a champion of comprehensive immigration reform. Whether in the form of partnerships, such as the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, or providing churches and parishioners with resources to enhance their own education on the lives and concerns of their immigrant neighbors, the Diocese stands for the rights of immigrants and protection of undocumented persons, and for the ever-increasing need for immigration reform in our country.
Sanctuary in broad terms means a place of refuge or safety and has been part of discussions about immigration for a long time. As people of faith and conscience, remembering the biblical command to Israel to welcome and honor foreigners and strangers because they, too, were strangers in Egypt, we want to take care of and stand with each other to ensure that everyone in our communities is respected and welcomed.
Because of the complexity and legal ramifications of sanctuary in the form of providing shelter to someone at risk, the Diocese of North Carolina leaves the determination of offering shelter to our individual worship communities. Every church is encouraged to do its own prayerful and thoughtful discernment about the ways in which it is and is not prepared to offer safe space to immigrants at risk of deportation. Each church contemplating offering shelter to a person facing the possibility of deportation should obtain an appropriate education to understand the risks and ramifications of such an action. This is not just to protect the congregation and its members, but even more importantly, to protect the interest of the person they seek to protect.
“The Diocese of North Carolina is eager and ready to assist our worship communities as they navigate the call to offer sanctuary to persons subject to the harsh realities of a broken immigration system,” said the Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple, bishop diocesan pro tempore for the Diocese of North Carolina. “I have full confidence that each congregation has the capacity to be guided by prayer, research, theology and practicality to make their own decisions about how best to use its resources, including its buildings to the glory of God and in love and service of neighbors in need.”
In the coming weeks, while the congregation and other volunteers provide a safe place for Ortega, AFSC, together with a network of partners, will lead a campaign to enlist the help of government officials in the hope of obtaining a stay of removal.
The Diocese will provide updates on the campaign as it progresses, along with information on opportunities to answer calls to action in case there are those who wish to participate.
Above all, we will pray for Juana Ortega, her family, those fighting for her to stay, and for those with the power to reform the laws that cause this kind of pain.