When the U.S. government failed to follow its refugee laws as people fled the U.S.-fueled civil wars in Central America in the 1980’s, my small church made history. It started the Sanctuary Movement.
Churches across the U.S. began offering sanctuary to thousands of people, sometimes at great risk. At the time, several church leaders were even charged with federal crimes. Though much has changed in our nation since we opened that first door, sadly much has stayed the same. Once again, for the first time in over 30 years, Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona is offering sanctuary.
Offering sanctuary is something we prayerfully and carefully considered; we do not take this action lightly. We know there are risks and we know a great deal of work lies ahead as we reorient the life of our church around caring for a family. But we also know that in times such as these, we are called by our faith to act on behalf of those who suffer injustice.
You may think you know Daniel’s story, but you don’t -- until he is living in your church. Sanctuary puts a face on immigration’s immense numbers. We are now part of Daniel’s family and do the everyday intimate things that families do together: cooking, eating, telling family stories, playing charades, working on an impossible puzzle, and praying with one another.
Daniel Neyoy Ruiz came to this country 14 years ago from Mexico. Eager to support his family and build a life here, Daniel found a job as a maintenance worker at an apartment complex and for the last 10 years has been filing his state and federal income taxes. He and his wife, Karla welcomed into their family Carlos, their now 13-year-old son. Daniel is active in his church where he is a music leader; and not only does he have no criminal history, he is a participant in Tucson Police Department’s “Tucson Crime Free Multi-Housing Program.”
In 2011 the happiness they found here began to unravel when Daniel was stopped by Highway Patrol. Though no citation was issued, Border Patrol was called and their three-year nightmare began. Finally facing a deportation order issued in May, Daniel entered into sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian.
President Obama recently said that the U.S. should not be in the business of tearing apart families. The Obama administration has said that people like Daniel -- individuals with no criminal history, strong ties to the community, and with U.S. citizen children -- are a low priority for deportations. While our current system needs serious reform, there is supposed to be grace within our current system for people like Daniel. We are simply asking the administration to show Daniel that grace by closing his deportation order and allowing him to remain in Tucson with his wife and son.
My home is my sanctuary, a place to find shelter in the comfort and love of family. But for 1100 families every single day, the sanctity of home is violated by our broken immigration system. We know sanctuary is not just about finding refuge within the walls of a church; it is about finding shelter in the love and support of a community. Until immigration officials close Daniel’s deportation case, he will remain with his family, within the sanctuary of our church, and within the loving shelter of our community.
As the war against the poor and undocumented rages on, it is my prayer that many more of us hear the call to welcome the foreigner; to love our neighbors; to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Harrington became pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona in January 2009. In 2010 she was named one of Tucson’s 40 under 40 and in 2011 was awarded the Beatitudes Society Brave Preacher Award.