Places of sanctuary

Sharing my faith story with the church small group I’m part of, I described myself as a broken-hearted person. One person responded that she’d usually heard people describe themselves as tender-hearted instead. But the first description suits me better, because from a young age there has been much in the world that breaks my heart.

Like the stories from neighbors in my hometown who sought refuge in the U.S. after surviving wars in the 1980s in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Like the stories I am hearing today from Mennonites in my city whose children are afraid that their parents will be deported. I wept with a woman who has been trying to comfort her family and others in her congregation, though she can’t totally quiet those fears in herself. She and her husband are in the citizenship process, but there have been many delays. And if Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids her husband’s workplace, they could sweep up everyone regardless of their status.

Recently I’ve also heard fellow Christians say that they are not anti-immigrant; they only oppose immigration when a person doesn’t have the legal documents to do so. Yet that position ignores the realities of people’s lives in their home countries, and the long, long wait to obtain permits to come to the U.S. A nation’s immigration laws — which change from year to year — are not more deserving of our concern than the needs of our fellow humans beings, whichever country they were born in.

The stories I’ve heard from people who have immigrated to the U.S. are accounts of the trauma of violence and the pain of being unable to earn a living. If I were facing such circumstances, I can only imagine whether I would have the courage to take the risk of crossing the border.

And I can only imagine the kind of communities we could create if we all worked together to fully welcome those who migrate in hope of finding safety and a way to provide for their families. The notion of separating those who have committed a crime is not a good standard, as many people who have done something that is illegal did so in the midst of hardship.

The example of Iowa Mennonite pastor Max Villatoro illustrates this. He left Honduras amid crushing poverty and lack of opportunity to get an education. Though he had not lived a perfect life in his early years in the U.S., he had done nothing worse than many of us who happened to have been born here. Yet immigration enforcement slated him for deportation. Members of Central Plains Mennonite Conference and others argued that Villatoro posed no threat to public safety, but he was sent back to Honduras in 2015.

Though I was among those who took action on behalf of Villatoro, I have been humbled to admit that I have been too complacent about deportations.

Hundreds of churches and schools are now pledging to be places of sanctuary, where someone facing a deportation order can take refuge, since immigration authorities rarely arrest people in those locations. These are the kinds of actions that may be increasingly necessary in the months and years ahead.

These past months have shown me that some of what I thought was common ground with my fellow American Christians was not. But I’m willing to look for the places where we can stand together—however we voted or if we didn’t vote at all—with whomever is willing to stand there, too. Can we stand together against unjust deportation?