Sanctuary story

Immigration sanctuary experience inspires novel for youth

Sometimes a story is so good, it can’t be told just once.

Elisa Stone Leahy, who attends Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio, had already shared Edith Espinal’s story of living in sanctuary at the church while facing the threat of deportation in her 2021 documentary, A Shelter for Edith.

Now the experience has inspired Leahy’s debut novel for middle-grade children, Tethered to Other Stars, released Oct. 3 by Quill Tree Books/Harper Collins. Although the formats and focus are different, the underlying questions and truths are the same.

Espinal had lived in the United States for 20 years after coming from Mexico as a 16-year-old. But when her application for asylum was denied, she faced separation from her husband and three children. She lived in the church building for more than three years, from Oct. 2, 2017, to Feb. 18, 2021.

Leahy joined the support team that walked with Espinal through difficult moments — which included missing her daughter’s graduation from high school and fearing what might happen after comments by the president suggested an imminent crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

“When Edith first went into sanctuary, my son was 7 and going into cancer treatment,” Leahy said. “I did not have capacity to join the team, but at the same time my heart was just longing to be a part of the team, so I started writing the book in my son’s hospital room.”

Tethered to Other Stars, by Elisa Stone Leahy
Tethered to Other Stars, by Elisa Stone Leahy

The novel, aimed primarily at a junior high audience, focuses not on a family living in sanctuary but on Wendy, a seventh grader in a Hispanic family that moves into a house just as the neighboring church welcomes a family in Espinal’s situation. Wendy is a tween struggling to understand the presence of immigration enforcement officials in her community and her friends’ varying perspectives.

“I wanted to highlight what kids like that have to navigate, for Americans who have never comprehended being American in any way other than their own,” Leahy said. “This is a complex issue. When I first had the idea for this, it was about trying to answer some complicated questions that even adults have challenges answering.”

A Peruvian American, Leahy drew on her own multicultural experiences. She began writing before Espinal’s situation was resolved, inspired by the complexities the Espinal children had to face daily.

Questions of identity, belonging and culture come with the territory in middle school and get compounded as Wendy encounters sometimes surprising or illogical perspectives among fellow students and adults.

What does she do with the diversity within the Hispanic community, when some are quick to support a family in sanctuary while others are reluctant to get involved with someone who didn’t emigrate “the right way”?

“I grew up straddling cultures,” Leahy said. “When you interact frequently with people only from one world, you see the places where communication gaps happen. You see where people sometimes miss each other. These can be humorous interactions, or it could be something profoundly damaging when we don’t go another step to understand what they mean, and that can damage an entire group of people.

“You see that in our current political system — we are so divided. Communicating can bring those groups together.”

Readers looking for a written record of events as they happened at Columbus Mennonite Church won’t find it in a novel aimed at middle schoolers. However, Leahy did find a way to tuck in a subtle nod to peacemaker Art Gish, the subject of another of her films, the 2010 documentary Old Radicals.

Author Elisa Stone Leahy was a member of Edith Espinal’s support team when she was in sanctuary from 2017 to 2021 at Columbus Mennonite Church. — Elisa Stone Leahy
Author Elisa Stone Leahy was a member of Edith Espinal’s support team when she was in sanctuary from 2017 to 2021 at Columbus Mennonite Church. — Elisa Stone Leahy

Her shift from documentarian to novelist was inspired in part by encountering powerful stories of desperate individuals and families fleeing violence and facing danger to cross the U.S. border. But they remain vulnerable to gang violence, even from a distance, and can’t share their experiences on a screen.

“I began writing fiction as a way to tell those truths,” Leahy said. “The intersection of fact and fiction and moving from documentary work is giving me an opportunity to tell the truth.”

The opportunity to be a children’s author also meshes with her other role. When not making films, Leahy works at Columbus Metropolitan Library.

“I’ve always been a storyteller in some way or form,” she said. “For me, it’s about empathy. I think stories are the best tool we have to create a more empathetic future.

“I work at a library because I love books and connections, and I think the ability of books to show us other worlds and other ways of things is special, and I want to be part of that in any way I can.”

She will continue her story as an author next year with another novel focused on one of the main character’s friends from school on a journey of acceptance and empathy.

“The book is very much about her and her own identity, but it’s really more about who she’s going to choose to be around [different] people,” Leahy said. “Book one deals with a lot of heavy things that are very important. But when I go talk to kids about it, I don’t have a lot that is fun to say, and I thought, ‘I need to write a fun book that is exciting and not just important to read.’ ”

Meanwhile, the Espinal family’s real-life story has taken a positive turn.

“After all that time fighting in sanctuary, the doors were opened for me to stay in the USA and keep my family together,” Edith Espinal said in October. “If God wills it, we hope to achieve our dream of buying a house.

“I have been approved for a visa that has allowed me to get a work permit and a driver’s license, and I pray to God that soon my immigration status will be settled with a green card. Getting a work permit has allowed me to work and continue to move forward with my family.”

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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