Another congregation has joined the ranks of Mennonite churches publicly giving sanctuary to individuals facing U.S. deportation orders.
Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia welcomed Carmela Apolonio and her four children Dec. 13 with a public action and service of welcome.
Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church began hosting Edith Espinal of Mexico and her three children Oct. 2, 2017. In April, Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz took sanctuary at Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship also meets and supports the undertaking, after fleeing threats on her life in Honduras.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have stated they will not enter sensitive locations such as schools or places of worship to arrest a person for deportation. This is more of a tradition than official policy.
Germantown associate pastor John Bergen said Apolonio comes from an area of Mexico affected by drug cartel conflicts and the U.S. war on drugs.
“She had three of her relatives killed by narco-traffickers,” he said. “She asked for asylum in San Diego in 2015 and was sent to family in the Jersey area with an ankle bracelet, and her asylum claim was denied about a year ago.”
At that point, she went door to door among churches in New Jersey, then in Philadelphia, asking for assistance, before one congregation suggested she connect with the New Sanctuary Movement — which Germantown joined about seven years ago.
“We helped her move into the Church of the Advocate, a historically black church in north Philly,” Bergen said of Apolonio’s entry into sanctuary a year earlier. “And then for a variety of circumstances it just made sense for her to move churches.”
One year living in a church basement has given Apolonio perspective.
“Sanctuary is really hard,” Apolonio said Dec. 13 on the steps outside the church’s doors. “It’s not easy, and it’s a lot of work for the congregation. They have a big responsibility because they are working and fighting hand in hand with us.”
A group effort
Bergen noted Germantown was not alone in transforming a space in the church used to offer short-term relief to people experiencing homelessness. People from Mennonite churches in the suburbs and non-Mennonite churches in the local community offered time, expertise and resources.
Some congregations realize they cannot offer sanctuary but are able to support others who can.
“It’s always a broader, bigger community,” Bergen said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t dozens of Mennonite churches across the country that — even if they aren’t hosting sanctuary themselves — are integral in the struggle.”
For other churches, especially those serving immigrant communities, a regular part of the pastoral role is navigating deportation orders.
“They do sanctuary every day and immigration justice work every day as part of the day-to- day reality of being communities that face threats of deportation,” Bergen said. “That is their gospel.”
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