The Common Good
September/October 2007

Living in God's House

by Celeste Kennel-Shank | September/October 2007

Finding sanctuary in a Chicago storefront church.

Elvira Arellano, 32, wants to be able to pick her son up from school and take him out for ice cream on hot days. But she can't leave her church, where she has taken sanctuary since Aug. 15, 2006, after immigration officials told her she would be deported. She fears she will be separated from her son, Saul, who is 8 years old and a United States citizen.

They live at Adalberto United Methodist Church, a storefront congregation on Chicago's West Side, where about half of the people attending are undocumented immigrants. The church is believed to be the first to offer refuge to a person facing deportation as part of the New Sanctuary Movement. "It is a church that has always helped immigrants," Arellano said.

Arellano crossed the border 10 years ago from Michoacán, Mexico, carrying her family's hopes that she would financially support them by working in the U.S. In the previous two years, her father lost the land he had farmed, and poverty bore down on the family. Arellano believes the North American Free Trade Agreement contributed to her family's misery. "My country was greatly affected by the free trade agreement and the devaluing of the Mexican peso."

She was arrested in December 2002 during a federal raid while working as a cleaning woman at O'Hare Airport. Adalberto's pastor, Walter Coleman, and church members got some of the several dozen people arrested out on bond.

Afterward, Arellano joined the church and began La Familia Latina Unida, a ministry currently serving about 300 families who have members facing deportation. Arellano herself has told the Immigration and Customs Enforcement where she is, and letters explaining her protest cover the church's front windows.

Though the petite, soft-voiced Arellano is sometimes called the movement's spokeswoman, she emphasizes that she doesn't want to be the only one. She encourages other families to take sanctuary and offer a witness to an immigration system they believe is broken. Recently, another woman facing deportation, Flor Cristosomo, 34, joined Arellano at Adalberto.

On May 9, the official launch date of the New Sanctuary Movement, Arellano spoke by phone with Jose Villada, an undocumented immigrant who has taken sanctuary at Our Lady Queen of Angels, a Catholic church in Los Angeles that sheltered immigrants in the 1980s during the first Sanctuary Movement. Arellano encouraged Villada and his family to trust in God through the difficulties of facing deportation. "We are not alone," she told him. "Thanks to God we have found a sanctuary to be able to continue struggling."

Since then other churches have joined the movement. "The church should provide holy ground from which the truth of a very courageous witness can be heard," said Coleman.

John 15:26, which tells of the Advocate coming to be a witness of truth, strengthens Coleman. "[Arellano's] story is the truth of this matter," he said. "We believe that the presence of the Holy Spirit moves us to provide holy space."

Prayer sustains Arellano in difficult moments. "I only ask that God gives me strength," she said. "Also my prayers are for the families that are separated."

One of the separated families Arellano works with through Familia Unida is that of Maria Garcia, 52. Garcia, born in Mexico City but now a U.S. citizen, lives in Chicago with her 14-year-old son. Her husband, an Italian citizen, was deported in January 2004 after he overstayed his visa. Garcia said she has spent more than $30,000 in lawyers' fees. "To have my family together, I was willing to pay anything," she said.

Garcia is hopeful that they will prevail in returning her husband to the U.S. Her hope is kindled when she attends Adalberto. "I am grateful to God that I found this church," she said. "It's a very small place, but when you come here, you feel better."

Arellano also trusts in God and the church for comfort, she said. "I'm tired, but then I look at [my son] Saulito. We've made huge sacrifices, but God has given us such blessings."

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a writer living in Chicago. Interviews with Elvira Arellano were conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.

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