Two weeks ago today three of us from CMC sat around a table at which Edith Espinal made the decision to go into sanctuary in a local congregation to avoid imminent deportation. After one location quickly fell through, we found ourselves being asked whether the Mennonites would be able to step forward. That Saturday morning Leadership Team met to get oriented to the situation and discuss how we might process this as a congregation. After a congregational meeting the following day and another one that Wednesday evening we felt we had enough information and enough congregational support to offer our building as sanctuary to Edith.
Many CMCers stepped forward right away to donate time, money, ideas, and material resources to prepare space for her. This included a major bathroom remodel to install a shower, clearing out the crib room and furnishing it as an apartment, installing security cameras, and developing a strategy for a new kind of normal. All of this after sitting down with Edith to hear about her needs. Meanwhile other supporting organizations planned for her transition into sanctuary. A petition was created, as was a fundraising mechanism. A media strategy was put in place in order to tell her story and gather public support.
On Monday evening of this week we welcomed Edith into our building with hand-made signs and the song “Caminamos en la luz de Dios, We are marching in the light of God.”
On Tuesday the major local media outlets showed up for a well-attended press conference. Edith and her daughter talked about why she was entering sanctuary, and several other faith leaders and I talked about the moral and spiritual dimensions of offering sanctuary.
That day, Tuesday, was to be Edith’s last check in with ICE. She had been ordered to appear with a plane ticket to Mexico, deportation at her own expense. Instead her attorney went in her place.
Tuesday evening we learned that ICE, in conversation with her attorneys, had requested Edith to check in with them on Wednesday, yesterday. Her attorneys felt this presented the best possibility for Edith to apply for and receive a stay of deportation. There would be risk in doing this, as Edith could be detained and held until deported. It also differed from the plan to remain in sanctuary while the application for a stay of deportation was made.
This was ultimately Edith’s decision, and it was unclear until the last minute what it would be.
Yesterday, Wednesday, morning around 11am, a number of us gathered downtown planning to report to ICE that she would be remaining in sanctuary and not be checking in. While there, we learned she had decided to check in after all, leaving the relative safety of the church. We accompanied her up to the floor of the ICE offices. We were immediately asked to leave, although after several requests I was allowed to stay and wait with her, her attorneys, her son Brandow, and her social worker, Maria, from Avanza.
While waiting I learned from Maria that ICE gets around the right of people to have an attorney with them during some of the check ins by contracting with a third party which has in their contract that no attorney can be present for the check in. After Brandow went in and came out quickly for his regular check in it was eventually Edith’s turn. It was a good sign when they allowed her attorneys to join her, meaning that an actual ICE agent would be meeting with them rather than the contracted company. I waited outside with Maria and Brandow in the long, narrow, nondescript hallway lined with chairs.
Over a half hour later Edith came out with a smile. Her attorneys explained that, while she still has an order for removal (deportation), she had been granted two weeks to file for a stay of deportation and will undergo regular check ins until she hears through the mail whether her stay has been granted. In total, this could take months.
Because of this arrangement, the need for sanctuary in a church is no longer as urgent. She can be, and understandably prefers to be, home with her family. It is my and other’s view that the option of sanctuary and the outpouring of support for Edith made the difference in making this possible. That is something to be celebrated – a weeping mother was given a smile yesterday. But it is a rare thing to be granted a stay of removal and this may have simply bought more time until Edith has to decide again whether to accept deportation or go the route most likely to protect her from being separated from her family – take sanctuary in a church building.
So where does this leave us as a congregation? We made a quick yet informed decision to become a sanctuary congregation. We have taken tangible and organizational steps toward having sanctuary space and being sanctuary people. We have escalated love. And we have begun a relationship with the Espinal family in which their story became connected to ours.
More broadly, other clergy and community members have expressed their solidarity with our move toward sanctuary, advancing a vital conversation in the Columbus faith community that will continue to grow.
What we have now is in at least one way similar to what Edith has. We’ve been given more time in which the urgency of the moment is less intense.
We have more time to consider how these last two weeks inform how we move ahead, to continue to prepare ourselves and our space.
Edith, and many others like her, are subject to the whims of a cruel system. Even though we are not currently hosting her in our building, this is by no means the end of the story. Let’s proceed prayerfully and powerfully.