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Guest columnist Laurie Loisel: The enduring, and sad, stories of those in sanctuary

  • At First Church in Amherst, members of several faith organizations gather to talk via Skype with people housed in sanctuary in their churches. LAURIE LOISEL



Friday, June 07, 2019

Lucio Perez said it best, and so simply: “I’m a little sad.” That was exactly how I was feeling, maybe more than a little sad. Actually, profoundly sad.

We were gathered on May 21, 26 people from houses of worship from around New England: Bedford, Massachusetts, Meriden and New Haven, Conneticut, Amherst and Northampton, each institution providing refuge to a person who sought sanctuary rather than be deported to a country they long ago stopped calling home: Guatemala, Russia, Ecuador, Indonesia.

There were representatives from two other Connecticut churches, one open to welcoming a person into sanctuary, another that had housed a family of three for six months until they could safely leave.

On Skype were Nelson Pinos, who lives at First and United Methodist Church in New Haven, Sujitno Sajuti, living at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden, and a woman who has been living at First Parish Church in Bedford for a year and a half.

In the room were some of the people who have been supporting them through these many months. I was there as a member of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, where Irida Kakhitranova has lived since April 5, 2017, hoping to win the right to stay here, with her U.S. born husband and their three U.S. born children. We’d convened at First Church in Amherst, where Lucio has lived since the fall of 2017, a meeting organized by the Rev. Margaret Sawyer of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center.

Appropriately, our time together began with prayer, led by Lucio, after which we heard from people living in sanctuary. Many of us in the room wore headsets providing instantaneous translations for the people speaking Spanish, headsets and translations provided by the worker’s center translator collective.

“I’m a little sad to listen to the story of each one of you,” said Lucio, addressing the faces beamed in via technology.

He described how he and his wife had moved from Guatemala with their oldest child to Delaware in 1999, where they had two more children. In 2007, they relocated to Springfield, where they had another child, now 10. He worked as a landscaper, taking care of his family by working hard tending lawns and gardens around the Pioneer Valley.

He was arrested in 2009 for briefly leaving his children in the car while he ran into a store; though charges were immediately dropped, he was placed in deportation proceedings; receiving stays each year until 2017, when he was ordered deported. That’s when he entered sanctuary.  

“It destroys our hearts to have to abandon the family,” he said, words that came through my headphones in the quiet voice of a translator.

Houses of worship are designated as sensitive locations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), places where enforcement and detainment will, for the most part, not take place.

The others told similar stories of living in the United States for decades. They’d had children here, raised them, and become part of the fabric of their communities. Nearly all received annual stays under the Obama administration, which recognized that they are no threat, and mostly a great asset, to society.

 When Trump took office, 95 percent of stays were denied. For many parents who lost their right to be in the United States, sanctuary became a safe, though by no means easy, way to fight to stay with their families.  

In our gathering, all but one spoke of the children they’d had here, the ways they’d provided for them, all natural-born citizens of the United States, the richness of their families.

“I got very scared about leaving my three children abandoned here,” Nelson said. That’s why he took the chance on sanctuary without knowing how long he’d be there or what it would be like to take up residence in a church.

One of the amazing things about their comments was the abiding faith in the goodness of people. You might expect people who had been living in church basements for more than a year with no guarantee of reprieve to be defeated, anguished, possibly despairing. But here, there was humility, gratitude, hope.

“I’ve had the luck of being with my family, the luck of getting to know people with huge hearts,” Nelson said. “It’s been a really beautiful experience. It’s been hard, and it’s been good.”

After they each spoke, there was hushed silence.

In this moment of reflection, I was moved once again by their faith in humanity, the sheer power of resistance when fueled by love.

I wondered about this notion of “our country.” Who is “our” in this nation of immigrants? How can anyone actually believe deporting these people makes any sense at all?

We can disagree about immigration and border security and the best ways to integrate new immigrants into our communities. But policy discussions and political debates sometimes miss the most important points. These are people who have built lives here. They have children. Children who are citizens of this country. Like it or not, they, too, are woven into that elusive concept called “our country.”

Yes, Lucio, I’m a little sad.

Laurie Loisel is a member of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, serving on the board of trustees and sanctuary team.