Dinner was served: chicken enchiladas, kale and apple salad, and rice and beans with chocolate pudding for dessert. We gathered around the table and said grace. Lucio gave thanks for the food, for the blessings of the day, for his family, and for his new friends. We all sat and enjoyed good food and good conversation. At one level it seemed so normal and at another it seemed so odd. The table was a card table. I was eating with people I barely knew or just met. Lucio’s family was not with us. And we were eating in the classroom of a church where later that night I would sleep on the cot that was currently set up beside us.
This was my second overnight at First Church Amherst where I volunteer as staff once a month. A staff member is one of the many volunteers that supports a church’s ability to offer sanctuary. When a church opens its building as a sanctuary, the congregation commits, in addition to other things, to having staff present 24 hours a day. Our responsibility is to offer general hospitality as it is needed and to answer the door if necessary. The staff person may be the first response if ICE decides to enter the church. The staff person is to remind the ICE agents of the memorandum of understanding discouraging their entrance to sensitive locations, to urge them to maintain the sanctity of a church, to alert a wider response team if they are needed, and to bear witness to anything that occurs. First Church has been maintaining this 24-hour hospitality and care since they opened their doors to offer hospitality and sanctuary to Lucio Perez on October 18, 2017. Lucio is a husband and father. He also is a person without visa or citizenship documentation who has a current deportation order from ICE to return to Guatemala, the country from which he immigrated in 1999. As we sat at the table and began to share our meal, I began to think of all of my blessings, most of which I had done nothing to earn. Although it was Lucio who gave thanks for our meal, it was I who felt abundantly blessed.
Perhaps it is my adoptive status that makes me keenly aware that where I was born and where I live has been something that was relatively out of my control. Although perhaps there is a part of me that would like to accept my US citizenship as divine truth and gift, I don’t believe that God works like that. I don’t think that God punishes or rewards us by having us born in one place versus another. God made the world, but it is we humans who have created the borders.
In the US, it seems that it is very challenging for us separate our national pride from our faith, but our beliefs require us to do so. The care of our neighbor, the refugee, the sojourner is mandated in our scripture. These people who are being picked up and deported are not foreigners or “illegals” as they sometimes referred, but fellow creations of God. They are our brothers and sisters. As Christians, it is our duty to care and protect them, not subject them to harm.
For me, listening to Lucio offer thanks to God while having so much of his freedom revoked and with the possibility of being returned to Guatemala so close, reminded me of the many, many blessings of God which I take for granted every day. I realize that Lucio and I are not as different as people might believe. We are both parents of children. We both only want the very best for our families. Our only difference is the random place of our birth.
Each time I leave Lucio, I pray the same prayer. I offer thanks for the time we have spent together, I promise to return, and I pray that my return as host is not needed and that Lucio may return to his wife and children free to resume his life within the United States where he has lived and worked for the past eighteen years.
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