response: January/February 2019 Issue

Sanctuary and Separation

Debora Barrios-Vasquez finds sanctuary and support at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew as she waits and works to be reunited with her family.

Sanctuary and Separation
Debora Barrios-Vasquez and her daughter Berenice play in the theater space at St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church in New York.

Debora Barrios-Vasquez dreams of taking her children to Disney World. Right now, she can’t even take them out for ice cream or down the block to play at the park. She’s living in sanctuary at St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church on the Upper West Side in New York City.

Barrios-Vasquez, 32, arrived in the United States in 2005. She left her home country of Guatemala for reasons she can’t safely share. “It is and was too dangerous” is how she explains it. She settled in Mamaroneck, in Westchester County north of New York City. She married and had children. She worked and paid taxes. She followed the rules laid out to seek asylum in the United States and gain residency and reported to her U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement check-ins. In May 2018, ICE told her she was being deported back to Guatemala; she never received a court notice that had been mailed to the wrong address. A routine traffic stop alerted ICE to her outstanding warrant.

Her journey to the United States was not easy. Barrios-Vasquez was attending school in Guatemala, with high hopes for her future, when she had to leave. It took her 13 days to get to the U.S.-Mexico border, with only one extra set of clothes and a series of people she needed to trust but who let her down. She spent three nights on a freight train “with no space to even move.” Without even realizing she was in North America, she was taken into custody by Border Patrol after swimming across a river at the advice of a woman who told her there would help on the other side. She was immediately put into detention.

She currently lives with her daughter, Berenice, 3, in the church’s former nursery room. Barrios-Vasquez’s son, Kener, 11, lives with his father in Mamaroneck, where he attends school, plays soccer, spends time with friends. He’s an all-American boy. Barrios-Vasquez celebrated Berenice’s third birthday in the church.

“I think we will be celebrating my son’s birthday here as well,” she said. He turned 11 a month after we spoke. They celebrated at the church.

Becoming a sanctuary

St. Paul and St. Andrew is a part of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, a multifaith group of congregations, organizations and individuals working to keep families together and resist detention and deportation through accompaniment, legal aid, help with posting bond and silent witness at the ICE offices and courts. Called Jericho Walks, the church and its United Methodist Women are regulars at the ICE offices in downtown Manhattan. The coalition also helps train and support faith communities in offering spiritual, moral and/or physical respite for anyone facing deportation. What St. Paul and St. Andrew didn’t realize was how quickly after becoming part of the coalition they would be called on to offer physical sanctuary.

Mary Ellen Kris is a member of United Methodist Women at St. Paul and St. Andrew. It was at her urging, according to the church’s senior pastor James “K” Karpen, that the church joined the coalition in the first place.

“My first action with New Sanctuary happened because of Mary Ellen, who dragged me to a meeting with the New York State civil rights office,” Karpen said. There they met immigrant rights activist Ravi Ragbir, a migrant from Trinidad and Tobago and permanent resident of the United States who has been fighting deportation since 2000. He is executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition.

“Humanitarian crises, often manmade, have caused massive displacements and migrations worldwide on a scale so great as to trigger fear, bigotry and protectionism,” said Kris, a deaconess and legal and program consultant to the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, when asked why she encouraged her church to act for immigrant rights. “A battle cry in the United States for a bigger wall on our southern border has morphed recently into a wall of soldiers deployed to protect ‘us’ from ‘them’—the huddled masses who are walking thousands of miles to seek refuge and lawfully apply for asylum in our country.”

St. Paul and St. Andrew practices both service and advocacy, from civil disobedience and the Jericho Walks to hosting a food pantry, a women’s shelter and afterschool mentoring, among other ministries.

“The Methodist movement threads the needle between personal holiness and social holiness,” said associate pastor Lea Matthews. “And it is not worth a hill of beans if you are devotional in your reading of your Bible and in your prayers if it doesn’t then spill out into actions and engagement with the world and its needs. That is what we’re called to do.”

Becoming a home 

In 2018 the church decided to become a sanctuary church, and what that meant up until May was accompanying migrants to check-ins and court dates, hosting trainings and witnessing at the ICE offices. It was Matthews who received the call from Ragbir, on a Saturday evening, asking if the church could host a family.

“I got the phone call from Ravi, and his information was, let’s say, not hugely informative, only that there was a family of four and the mother was under the order of deportation and needed immediate sanctuary. I called K and I asked, ‘Well, how’s your Saturday night going?’”

When Barrios-Vasquez got the notice to show up at her next ICE check-in with a plane ticket to Guatemala, she panicked.

“Her children are U.S. citizens,” said Karpen. “She has a life here. She had meaningful work. She didn’t want to leave her family and her home, and she didn’t know what to do. She had had an attorney who kind of evaporated and didn’t follow through on things that were supposed to have been done. It’s a familiar story. When she received this notice she was just very, very upset.”

At some point, someone had given Barrios-Vasquez a card from the New Sanctuary Coalition. She went to the coalition’s office. They reached out to St. Paul and St. Andrew.

Matthews and Karpen quickly called the church together to see if providing this kind of physical sanctuary was possible.

“This wouldn’t be just a church decision,” Matthews said. “It would be a community-wide decision. We serve people that are vulnerable for all sorts of reasons.”

The church quickly realized that giving Barrios-Vasquez a safe place to stay was just another way to answer its call to follow Christ. Within a week the church mobilized, and within two weeks Barrios-Vasquez and Berenice were set up with a room and a support network, including help with laundry, groceries and even medical care. They wanted to make the former nursery feel as close to home as possible. Matthews said they turned the room around in four hours.

“Debora walked in and took my hand. She just couldn’t walk anymore, and she started to cry,” Matthews said. “We stood still, and that was when I realized, like her hand was in my hand, her life was too.”

Going public

Barrios-Vasquez decided to go public with her story, to help others in her situation and to put a face on the “issue” of immigration and child separation. In June 2018 she held a news conference at the church.

“I ask for the opportunity to present my case to the judge and fight for my right to live with dignity and safety,” she said at the conference. “But most importantly, I want my children to know their dreams.”

Taking her case public was a hard decision for Barrios-Vasquez, for whom the well-being of her children is always top priority.  She’s hoping that staying temporarily at St. Paul and St. Andrew and being public will not only help her but many others, even if it raises her profile. Taking sanctuary in a church offers no legal safety but is respected out of tradition. ICE is able, with the right credentials, to enter the church and arrest Barrios-Vasquez if it wants to. Her protection comes in how bad it would look for ICE if it did.

“I want people to know I tried to do my best,” said Barrios-Vasquez. “I didn’t do any anything bad here, just worked hard and paid my taxes,” she told me as we talked at the end of a long day, while Berenice played with Karpen and the church’s trustees waited outside to use the room. She spent thousands of dollars on lawyers who told her not to worry.

“I wasn’t worried about my case at home because I trusted the lawyers. They told me everything was going to be OK,” she said. She went on living her life, earning her high school equivalency degree and working at a nonprofit early childhood center.

Going public did help Barrios-Vasquez get a team of pro-bono lawyers and a network of supporters. But four months after her news conference, the decision to go public was taking its toll.

“Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing,” she said. She worries about the trauma it’s causing her children. Kener chose to speak at the June conference despite his mother’s misgivings.

“He’s very smart and he likes to talk,” Barrios-Vasquez said. “He told me he wants to become president so he can help his mom."

United Methodist Women and radical welcome

Julia Tulloch is the chair of trustees for St. Paul and St. Andrew, so she was part of the sanctuary decision-making and preparations from the beginning. She’s also president of the church’s United Methodist Women.

Tulloch described United Methodist Women as a ready network of women already in the practice of service and advocacy. United Methodist Women members at St. Paul and St. Andrew quickly became a part of Barrios-Vasquez’s support network, helping with laundry and child care and groceries and also visiting the ICE offices and courts on Barrios-Vasquez’s behalf. United Methodist Women has the benefit of being a supportive community, Tulloch said, not just for the marginalized but for one another.

“There’s a value in doing things together,” she said. “It offers mutual support but also has greater impact if we show up as a group.”

Alicia Pitterson, another member of St. Paul and St. Andrew’s United Methodist Women, is part of this support network.

“Our group has many members in rotation pledging in some form to go to the ICE office, pray, write letters, call those who can use their authority to help this wife and mom of U.S. citizens gain her freedom to be a U.S. citizen,” she said. She joined a group of United Methodist Women members on a recent visit to ICE, and she appreciated that they met before to establish a plan and after to debrief.

“On a regular basis, a group of supporters go to the 9th floor of the federal building to explain that we are here to inquire about the status of Debora’s application for stay of deportation,” explained Deaconess Megan Hale, who also recently visited ICE with St. Paul and St. Andrew’s United Methodist Women. “A security guard asks if we have an appointment, then says only one person can go in. Everyone else must wait in the cafeteria on the 6th floor. The member who does go lets ICE know who we are and asks them to keep Debora with her family—and that we will continue to come back.”

United Methodist Women member Peggy Griffin-Jackman calls visits to ICE “not always so pleasant.”

“It’s challenging to be persistent, definite and positively pleasant without being too challenging, speaking always from a faith perspective, not getting tangled up in their legal arguments or excuses. But thinking of Debora and so many others, a little discomfort or restrained anger on my part is a tiny thing,” she said.

There’s a strength in community that may not be there if a member went alone, described Tulloch.

“There’s the witness to the system, and there’s also the witness among ourselves in that we begin to say, ‘Oh I can do that,’” said Tulloch. “People who would not have thought themselves able to do this have said, ‘Yes, I’ll go with you.’” Both providing a meal and visiting ICE, Tulloch noted, are ways to use racial and socioeconomic privilege in a way that changes unjust systems, something United Methodist Women has been doing since its founding.

Abiding God’s law

For St. Paul and St. Andrew and its United Methodist Women, offering sanctuary to Barrios-Vasquez and her family is practicing what they preach.

Accompanying neighbors to ICE check-ins and working with community organizations are ways Kris suggests United Methodist Women members can help.

“Accompanying a frightened immigrant neighbor to ICE is a ministry of presence that can be transformative for you, your neighbor, your faith community and, by God’s grace, the immigration system,” she said.

Griffin-Jackman encourages women to get involved in postcard campaigns, in volunteering in simple and seemingly small ways, and especially by praying for and supporting one another.

“I have been blessed by relationship with Debora, by laughing, crying and praying together. I have been blessed by the companionship and supportive presence of United Methodist Women members waiting for me in a cafeteria several floors below as I stood before a tall, intimidating clerk, requesting to speak to an officer and present Debora’s stay of deportation, and she said.

For Pitterson, “It is about loving our neighbor who is part of our family. To love kindness a beautiful thing. We believe in families reunited and living their best lives.”

Matthews explained that the church had to get “real clear” about why it was offering sanctuary.

“It’s about this giant system that is corrupt and that targets the most vulnerable among us, specifically brown and black people,” she said. “And we said we can’t abide by laws that are unjust or laws that are unjustly practiced. So whose law are we following? How can we use those things that are privileging us to benefit others? We decided that, well, we will follow Jesus.”

Family separation is not happening just at the U.S.-Mexico border. Barrios-Vasquez can’t attend Kener’s soccer games. She missed his 5th grade graduation. She can’t take Berenice to the walk-in when she has a sore throat. She’s grateful for the church and its support, and she’s even been named volunteer of the year by the church’s food pantry. But the church isn’t home.

“There’s bad people everywhere,” Barrios-Vasquez said. “But there’s good people too. People have to stand up. They have to talk. They have to say enough is enough. I hope they do the right thing.”


Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 1/4/2019 12:00:00 AM
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