Declaring Sanctuary

By Alison J. Harrington 11-06-2014
Rosa Robles Loreto and her family. Photo courtesy Rev. Alison J. Harrington

On Aug. 7 we lit a single white candle at the prayer service welcoming Rosa Robles Loreto into sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz. Almost 90 days later, that candle has been joined by five others, representing Luis Lopez Acabal, Beatriz Santiago Ramirez, Francisco Aguirre, Francisco Perez Cordova, and Arturo Hernandez. We are grateful that Beatriz was just granted a stay so that she could return to her home with her two small children, but the rest all remain in sanctuary.

As we approach Rosa’s 90th day in sanctuary, its time to replace the nearly burned down candle, but the light of radical Christian hospitality continues to not only burn bright, but spread throughout the nation.

Rosa was not the first person to enter sanctuary at Southside. In May, Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, who was facing a final order of deportation, lived in sanctuary at our church for 28 days before being issued a stay of removal. Decades before that, Southside was a leading congregation in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s when more than 14,000 refugees came through our doors fleeing the civil wars of Central America. And so for us, sanctuary is at the heart of what it means for us to be Christians in the borderlands.

Here in the borderlands, we have seen too many families torn apart by a broken immigration system, and we have been overwhelmed by the stark reality that under the Obama administration there have been more than 2 million people deported — that’s 1,000 a day. In this particular historical moment, we have heard the call of Scripture to care for the orphan and the widow, but we have asked ourselves — isn’t it time we acted before a deportation order creates a widow and an orphan?

When first Daniel and then Rosa came to us asking for help to keep their families together, we knew what needed to be done and we declared sanctuary. We declared sanctuary because Rosa is our neighbor and what does it mean to love our neighbor if it is not to try and keep their family together? We declared sanctuary because Rosa is, by ICE’s own admission, a low priority for deportation. She first arrived to the United States in 1999 and since then has become a valued member of our community and an active member of her church. She is a loving wife and mother to two amazing little league players — and nothing gives her more joy than cheering on Gerardo Jr,. 11, and Jose Emiliano, 8, at their baseball games. Her family is just the kind of family President Obama said we should not be in the business of tearing apart, and yet a final order of deportation hangs over her head. And so we declared sanctuary, because as Christians, we are in the business of keeping families together.

But we don’t stand alone. The movement is growing, and congregations across the nation are beginning to stand up and stand between families and deportation orders by welcoming those families into sanctuary. According to sanctuary2014.org, the website that has been set up to help grow this movement, there are 24 congregations that are ready to declare sanctuary, and every day we receive calls from pastors and rabbis whose congregations are ready to act.

In Arizona, we are particularly proud to be part of this movement. For too long Arizona has been known as the birthplace of anti-migrant sentiments and legislation, but now Arizona is becoming known as a part of the movement of radical hospitality that we call sanctuary. And just like anti-immigrant legislation like SB1070 spread through our nation like wildfire, sanctuary is now spreading through our communities like wildflowers.

As people of faith, we are committed to follow the commands of our faith to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbor, and to seek justice. In light of the broken promises of our elected officials, we are coming together in a growing national movement to say, we won’t break our promise; we will declare sanctuary and defend families from deportation. And until Rosa Robles Loreto, Luis Lopez Acabal, Francisco Aguirre, Francisco Perez Cordova, and Arturo Hernandez are able to safely return home, and until no family is torn apart by our unjust and inhuman immigration system, we will continue to be live out our faith through sanctuary.

The Reverend Alison J. Harrington is pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz.

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