Sanctuary churches


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 15th of August, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: churches that shield deportees from immigration authorities.

With the enormous rise of asylum applications to this country, a new phenomenon has developed: so-called sanctuary churches that allow asylum-seekers to evade the government. Most of these are acting as individual congregations, but that may be changing.

BASHAM: More than a quarter of a million people applied for asylum in 2017. Just two years prior, that number was nearly half. And the numbers have spiked even more sharply of late. 

Last week, the 3-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America took a denominational position on this issue. It now calls itself the nation’s first “sanctuary church body.”

One estimate shows at least 50 migrants are already living on church properties across the country.

WORLD Radio’s Maria Baer recently visited one such woman in Columbus, Ohio. She reports now on the church’s position, and the theological criticisms of it.

MARIA BAER, REPORTER: Columbus Mennonite Church is an old brick building, surrounded by patches of wild grass and black-eyed susans. The church is home to about 150 people each Sunday—and all week long, it’s home to Edith Espinal. You’ll usually find her in what used to be the infant cry room on the church’s second floor.

ESPINAL: Cuando llegue tenia este cabinete, la mesita, y esta mueble y este cama…

She has a TV, a small dresser, and a mini-fridge. There’s a small plastic bin with dog food along one wall of the rectangular space.

ESPINAL: (Y como se llama?) Se llama Bella…

Espinal has been living here for two years. Why? To avoid deportation.

Forty-two-year-old Espinal is from Mexico. She first came to America at the age of 16, and has had two children here. In 2013 she applied for asylum. A judge denied her claim two years later, and ICE ordered her to leave in 2017. That’s when Columbus Mennonite heard about her case and invited her in.

Pastor Joel Miller said even though Espinal was a virtual stranger to church members before she moved in, they identified with her situation.

MILLER: Mennonites have stories of needing refuge ourselves and coming, a lot of reasons coming to this country was for economic or fleeing violence even, so having been on that side of the experience … you know that is important for being compassionate.

U.S. law reserves asylum for those facing persecution because of their race, religion, gender, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The legal code includes a long list of definitions, but one word remains notably undefined: persecution. Judges in various federal courts have tried to define it for years, but each decision has only muddied the waters.

Espinal won’t say why she applied for asylum.

ESPINAL: Eso es una confidencia. No lo habemos hecho publico.

TRANSLATION: That’s confidential. We haven’t made that public.

But she said she and her family had to escape violent drug cartels in their home state of Michoacan.

Evangelical leaders and aid organizations have urged Christians to show compassion to immigrants. But the practice of shielding migrants in churches is highly controversial.

Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore has been openly critical of some of President Trump’s immigration policies. But he said he wouldn’t recommend churches offer housing to those in the country illegally.

MOORE: Generally speaking, I think there are better ways for churches to minister to undocumented immigrants than to offer physical sanctuary from the laws. One of those ways would be to advocate for families in the community, another would be to serve anyone as one’s neighbor in the orbit of the mission of that congregation. I think that those ways are not only biblically mandated but also are more effective in the long run in caring for immigrant and refugee communities.

Pastor Joel Miller said he has met with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to advocate on Espinal’s behalf. But he doesn’t see her as a lawbreaker so much as legally unlucky.

MILLER: She applied for asylum, which is legal, and there’s just a judge that said no. And I mean we’re basically appealing to a higher law. And that’s a faith perspective.

Moore said this kind of civil disobedience is on shaky theological ground.

MOORE: A country must have borders in order to carry out its Romans 13 responsibility to maintain justice and order. A country must know who is in the country and for how long…

Pastor Miller said his church was worried at first about assuming the legal risks associated with housing Espinal. She has an ankle monitor, so Immigration and Customs Enforcement knows where she is. But since 2011, ICE has followed an internal policy not to remove people from vulnerable places. Those include hospitals, schools, and churches.

In the two years Espinal has lived inside Columbus Mennonite, agents have not contacted the church. But the government did fine her nearly $500,000 for refusing to leave the country.

Espinal plans to fight the fine.

ESPINAL: Pues mi planes son primero de si puedo salir de aquí de santuario poder, tratar de poder de obtener mi trabajo, trabajar y… my planeas son, poderse un duena de mi propio negocio y poder este, mas que nada aprender mas ingles.

TRANSLATION: My plans are first to leave sanctuary, if I can. To try to get my job back, to work… I want to own my own business. More than anything I want to learn more English.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Maria Baer reporting from Columbus, Ohio.


(Photo/Adora Namigadde, WOSU) Edith Espinal speaks to an audience at Columbus Mennonite Church.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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