In June 2010, 14 people were murdered on the same day on public bus in El Salvador .
It is from that frightening surrounding that 19 -year-old Araceli Velasquez fled to the United States.
“El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in the world, and miscarriage is punishable by 30 years in prison, ” according to the American Friends Service Committee petition made on behalf of Velasquez. Discovering security was imperative.
But when Velasquez arrived at the United States border, she was detained.
“And then in detention, I learned I could apply for asylum because of the violence I was fleeing, so that’s what I did, ” Velasquez told. She was denied asylum but stayed in the U.S. out of concern for her safety.
It wasn’t until members of Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah in Denver got involved that Velasquez was able to live safely in the United States. The two congregations, along with the larger faith community, decided to offer Velasquez’s family sanctuary among their own.
For Velasquez, sanctuary “means that I don’t have to be fearful that I’ll be separated from my family and that I can continue to fight my expulsion in order to keep their own families together.”
In the United States, faith communities are able to provide sanctuary for immigrants because of a 2011 memo.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement( ICE) document ensures “enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive places such as colleges and churches.” It’s not a foolproof solution — the Trump administration so far has adhered to the policy but has been known to post ICE agents near sensitive locatings. But for the most proportion, it provides much needed security to vulnerable community members.
Steve Holz-Russell, coordinator of the sanctuary task force, recalled starting the conversation practically. “Compared to other things we’ve done as a church,[ deciding to become a sanctuary site] went lightning fast, ” Holz-Russell said. The church took a vote in June 2017, and more than 80% of the congregation favored sanctuary.
There’s a history of faith communities sheltering immigrants that reaches back centuries.
Faith leaders and activists helped people immigrate from El Salvador and Guatemala to the U.S. to flee the political violence the U.S. initially refused to recognize as human rights violations. Dating much further back, the tradition of sanctuary can be found in the Hebrew Bible and the Torah, though with a different application.
Today, claiming sanctuary in a faith community means the individual or family and the faith community decide to have a relationship that includes providing the person or people in sanctuary a place to live.
While there is precedent for claiming and providing sanctuary, there is no law keeping ICE agents from entering faith communities to to be implemented by deportation actions. Thus, providing sanctuary is considered an act of civil disobedience .
Velasquez and her family moved in shortly after her interview with the church and temple.
The apartment where the family would be living wasn’t complete right away. For about five weeks, they stayed in the youth room until remodeling was finished.
The two faith communities have worked together to stimulate Velasquez and their own families comfortable and cared for. Park Hill United Methodist Church’s lead clergyman, Rev. Nathan Adams, described the ongoing run as very pragmatic. Community members, he said, have been asking themselves, “What needs to to get out of here, and who can do it? “
Temple Micah Rabbi Adam Morris agrees. From his view, the two faith communities discover that “we’re doing good, and we’re pursue justice and compassion, but the other great portion has been … deepening our relationship.”
One unforeseen outcome of housing Velasquez in sanctuary? The upswell of support from the broader community.
More than 90 people regularly give their day as either door monitors or overnight volunteers. They have come not only from the faith community but also from the broader neighborhood and throughout Denver.
ICE is known for conducting raids early in the morning or late at night . Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah have protocols in place should agents show up at their building.
“We had a scare where ICE went to Jorge’s place of work, ” said Rev. Angie Kotzmoyer, an associate clergyman. Holz-Russell received the call from Velasquez saying she believed ICE was on their way.
Recalling that frightening day, Holz-Russell said, “I called everybody, ” and Adams added, “And everybody came.”
Sanctuary has given Velasquez the ability to keep her family together. It has also indicated her that change is possible.
“I really believe that if more churches had the experience that Temple Micah, Park Hill[ UMC ], and I have had, where we learn to trust each other and share with one another profoundly, that that would change the politics and the laws that we have, ” she said.
Park Hill United Methodist Church and its committee are considering sponsoring legislation around transformations in immigration policy as well as proclaiming support for those living in sanctuary in Colorado. Adams knows that sanctuary and considering legislation is only the beginning.
“We ensure a neighbor in Araceli and her family that are in need, ” he told. “I believe God is providing volunteers, people who are interested and am worried about this, to make it possible. So, we gotta do it. We gotta set our faith into action.”
Ultimately, the hopes of Velasquez and Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah are the same: that she and her family will be able to return to their own home.
Furthermore, Adams said, “we really want to live in a place where the idea of sanctuary isn’t even needed.”
To learn more, visit http://www.sanctuary-phumc-micah.com.
This narrative originally appeared on Greater Park Hill News and is reprinted here with permission .
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