Ohio church offers sanctuary

Columbus Mennonite first in state to publicly open doors

Oct 5, 2017 by and

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Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church opened its doors the morning of Oct. 2 to a 39-year-old mother of three children from Mexico, offering sanctuary to her after it became clear federal officials would seek to deport her.

It was the second time Edith Espinal stayed at the church. She spent two nights there in September before learning she could apply for a stay of removal.

That option was denied because Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials determined she is an “enforcement priority.” Espinal was presented  with the option of purchasing a flight departing Oct. 10 to Mexico or being taken into custody.

She and her family decided Oct. 1 to return to the church in order to remain together. She was due to attend an ICE check-in on Oct. 2.

The church has converted a children’s classroom into living quarters and installed a shower.

ICE policy states that carrying out enforcement actions in sensitive locations such as schools and places of worship should be avoided, but officials are not forbidden from entering a church.

“We don’t expect to be contacted by them directly,” said Columbus Mennonite Pastor Joel Miller on Oct. 3, noting the situation is open-ended with no expectation of a date to resolve it.

“Frankly, we don’t know what to expect, but we imagine that her attorneys will be somewhat of a go-between.”

Miller said the church hadn’t experienced any vandalism since opening its space to the Espinal family, but it did report to police a Facebook post threatening to burn the church down.

The congregation views its assistance to the Espinal family as based on biblical values of justice, mercy and family cohesion. Columbus Mennonite was the first to publicly offer sanctuary in Ohio, and Miller said he had heard of a Presbyterian church doing so now in Cleveland.

“We’ve gotten tremendous support from other congregations, from people in the neighborhood,” Miller said. “I walk a quarter-mile home every day, and neighbors flag me and tell me they support us. They offer to bring in meals.”


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