Offering sanctuary, churches put words into practice

Congregations have already acted on convention’s call for solidarity with migrants

Jul 29, 2019 by and

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As delegates passed a “Churchwide Statement on the Abuse of Child Migrants” at the Mennonite Church USA convention July 6 (page 11), congregations and organizations shared ways they offer solidarity with immigrants.

In Chapel Hill, N.C., Rosa Ortez Cruz took sanctuary from deportation more than a year ago through a partnership between Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship and the Church of Reconciliation, a Presbyterian church.

“When we talk about sanctuary, it’s a specific kind of civil disobedience using the memo that directs [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] not to trespass on church properties,” said Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite.

“This feels like a poignant moment in the history of our church’s relationship to the nation-state in this country, especially related to the government determining who can be our neighbors.

“As the church, we can’t help but put our bodies where our faith is and say that we welcome as part of the body of Christ the people whom the government wants to deport.”

Edith Espinal has been living in sanctuary at Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church since October 2017. The church’s website lists ways for others to provide support. ICE recently sent a letter to Espinal, and about 10 others in sanctuary, including Ortez Cruz, fining her for $497,777 for overstaying her deportation date, said Joel Miller, pastor at Columbus Mennonite.

“I think it’s significant that the churchwide statement recognizes that abuse and family separation is taking place all over the country, not just at the borderlands,” Miller said.

“Our experience with Edith in sanctuary has opened our eyes to the extreme measures ICE is taking around our own community in Central Ohio to pursue and deport undocumentable mothers and fathers. It is heartening that we as Mennonite Church USA can have a collective witness of hospitality toward migrants and against cruelty.”

Others who presented seminars at the convention included Rachel Ringenberg Miller, pastor at Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Kan., where they are waiting to host someone in sanctuary. Together with Zion Mennonite Church in Elbing, Kan., Shalom Mennonite started a visitation program for women detained due to their immigration status, where they visit Chase County Jail twice monthly to pray, share stories and offer support to the women.

Mitzi Moore shared from San Antonio Mennonite Church, where the congregation has used space in its building to respond to the needs of refugees and migrants. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which has gained national attention for its work to provide legal representation and reunite immigrant families separated at the border, has a long-term relationship with San Antonio Mennonite Church and Mennonite Voluntary Service.

Mennonite Central Committee is collecting donations for immigration detainee care kits that provide clothes and items for basic human needs to people when they are released after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol and ICE.

“We said back when we passed the Churchwide Statement on Immigration in 2003 and 2014 that we would commit to a number of concrete actions,” said Byron Pellecer, associate conference minister for Western District Conference, and a member of the team who worked on the 2019 resolution. “We have accomplished some of them, but there is still a lot of work to do.”

Several of these actions still need urgent attention, Pellecer said, including learning about the political and economic situations that push and pull people’s migration to the U.S., advocating for just and humane immigration poli­cies for immigrants and refugees by contacting elected officials, and partnering with immigrant congregations to plan church services or community events.


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