Akron, OH – In September, we highlighted the story of Leonor Garcia, a mother of four who has lived in the United States for twenty years and faced deportation due to the change in priorities under Trump. Leonor was given sanctuary in a Cleveland Heights church.
In Columbus, Edith Espinal is living in sanctuary in the Columbus Mennonite Church. Espinal also came to the U.S. twenty years ago, where she built a life, family, and community in Ohio. Now, Edith remains in a room made for her behind the nursery on the second floor of the church.
In a must-read piece, the Akron Beacon Journal reports on the burgeoning sanctuary church movement throughout the state, and how local faith leaders are stepping up in the face of ramped up deportation measures and ‘silent raids’ that are destroying Ohio families.
In addition to offering a safe space for immigrants, religious leaders are supporting Ohio families in deportation in other ways. Cleveland’s Catholic Bishop Nelson Perez pleaded for mercy from ICE in Pedro Hernandez’s case. Ohio faith leaders lead the campaign to try to keep Maribel Trujillo at home with her children. They also advocated to attempt to keep Jesus Lara back home in Willard with his family. Callously, though, the government insisted on deporting these moms and dads despite the pain this has inflicted on their American children.
Said Lynn Tramonte, Director of America’s Voice Ohio:
Since the Trump Administration began its campaign against immigrants, the faith community has mobilized to protect them. In Ohio, organized communities of faith—across all religions—are standing up for our family values. They give hope that someday soon, America’s humane and compassionate side will prevail.
Find the Akron Beacon Journal piece excerpted below, and in its entirety here.
Advocates are encouraged by the first of Ohio’s sanctuary churches. It’s a coordinated effort to block President Donald Trump’s deportation forces and take a stand after decades of inaction by Congress on passing comprehensive immigration reform.
Unlike sanctuary cities, where local police withhold information from federal officials, a sanctuary church keeps nothing secret from the government. Leaders of the three churches in Ohio say they made U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement aware of their guests, or figured ICE already knew because the person seeking sanctuary had an ankle monitor.
“The goal is to protect the family in the short term while additional legal efforts are underway,” said the reverend of the Akron-area church where 150 parishioners voted unanimously to give sanctuary to immigrants “so that they won’t be detained or deported …
“The goal of sanctuary is to have someone living in sanctuary as short as possible,” the reverend continued. “Can you imagine how hard it would be on a family living there for a long time?”
The local church leader spoke on the condition that he and his church not be named. While others offering sanctuary have opted to go public, a strategy that leverages media attention and public support, the Akron-area church is quietly playing its cards in the best interest of the family living there.
“When our family came into sanctuary, ICE was informed,” the reverend said. “We told them as a goodwill gesture that we would not go public in an effort to allow this [immigration] appeal process to go forward without public pressure. They [ICE] have shown some sympathy for this family in the past. And then something changed. And, of course, I know what changed: a new administration came to power.”
Politics and faith
The sanctuary church movement comes at a time of rising nationalism here and abroad. Leaders of these progressive and inclusive congregations say it’s all about faith, and a little about politics.
The Rev. John Lentz of Forest Hill Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights took in Leonor Garcia two days before ICE told the Akron mother to self-deport to Mexico last month.
“Welcoming Leonor into our space and really inviting her to make this her home for a while is very much at the root and core of our understanding of what Christian faith calls us to be and to do,” Lentz said. “It is rooted in this understanding that God loves everybody and for God there are no borders. It is rooted in an understanding that we have a particular concern for folks who are marginalized, for folks who are on the fringe of society.”
Lentz and like-minded pastors cite the Hebrew teachings of Leviticus: “If there is an alien among you, you treat that alien as yourself,” Lentz said.
Or the gospel of Matthew: “What you do to the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you do to me. And he makes a list,” Lentz added. “Did you welcome the stranger? Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? Did you visit me in prison?”
The exact number of sanctuary churches in America isn’t known.
A month after Trump took office, the Rev. Noel Anderson of the Church World Service reported that the 400 churches willing to offer sanctuary had doubled to 800.
According to Anderson’s tracking of public cases, 28 churches — including two in Ohio — are known to be providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. But including cases in which churches aren’t publicly talking about their guests, Anderson’s group estimates as many as 150 churches could be sheltering undocumented immigrants today.
Ready for push back
The pastor at the Akron-area church reached out to immigration experts and advocates in July. He did his homework before asking his congregation in August to approve sanctuary status.
The church set guidelines for admitting immigrants, excluding any with a known history of crime or drugs. The doors to the church would be locked, for everyone’s safety.
A shower was installed and an extra room was converted into living quarters. Out of an abundance of caution, sanctuary families would not have access to the church’s elementary school during the day.
Still, a few parents who do not attend the church began pulling their children from the private grade school when word got out.
Now, the church’s leader and its guests are waiting for ICE to determine their next move.
“The playbook is that you go public, you call a press conference, you try to draw the attention of notable public leaders who would call or write to ICE,” he said. “You tell the family story to try to illicit sympathy from the public and those who would speak up on their behalf.
“Now, does that work? I’m not really the best person to ask that question. I’m aware of people who were put into sanctuary during the Obama administration who were allowed to leave [without being detained and deported]. I’m not aware of anyone allowed to leave sanctuary under the current administration.”