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Photo: In observation of Mother’s Day, Columbus Mennonite Church held an event May 10 that put Edith Espinal’s story alongside two other mothers: facing separation from children through possible deportation (Espinal), living without a son killed by Columbus police, and leaving behind a child in a refugee camp. The three woman are standing in front. Photo provided by author.
In early October, our congregation marked the one-year anniversary of Edith Espinal in sanctuary in our church building. Actually, she first entered sanctuary last Labor Day but was able to return home briefly before entering long-term on Oct. 2.
Over this past year, I have thought many times about that Wednesday evening in August 2017, when our congregation completed our accelerated discernment process to become a sanctuary church. It was our second meeting in four days, all the time we had, due to Edith’s impending deportation order.
One of my favorite anecdotes from that evening is that Mateo Leahy was there, sitting near the back with Elisa, his mother. He had insisted on attending so he could vote for Edith to live in our church and not have to leave her family. He was entering second grade and earlier in the month had been diagnosed with a soft-tissue cancer in the back of his mouth. He had already undergone a round of chemo. But when he heard that Edith might have to leave her family, he insisted on attending a mid-week evening church meeting.
After meeting Edith, discussing the legal ramifications and raising other questions and concerns, all in attendance received slips of paper. We were asked to write a number, 1 (cannot support) through 5 (fully support). Later that evening, our leadership team considered the discussion and tallied the numbers from that and the previous meeting. Mateo’s 5 was joined by many others, and there were no 1’s. We knew we didn’t know what all we were signing up for, but we knew enough, and had enough affirmation from the congregation, to say yes. Ever since then, we’ve been on this journey with Edith and the community of support that has formed around her.
This summer, after nearly a year of difficult treatments, Mateo and his family celebrated the beginning of a cancer-free era. And Edith remains in sanctuary in our church building.
Although rarely named as such, some voices in our national immigration debate approach migrants as if they were a cancer or infectious disease within our national body. The solution, the treatment, they say, is to target those here for removal and put up as many physical and legal barriers for those seeking entrance. Franklin County, Ohio, home of Columbus Mennonite Church, is in the top national tier for the percentage of people being deported who have no criminal record. At the border, we have gone so far as using family separation as a deterrent for those considering entry. They seem to think word will get around south of the border that the cruelty with which you’re treated in the United States far surpasses the violence or economic desperation you’re trying to flee. In this way, the U.S. body politic will be protected. We will be well again. America will be great again. Our white blood cells are working overtime these days to battle the infection. Emphasis on white.
This year of sanctuary has highlighted for us that there is indeed a great illness we are facing. But we have a different diagnosis. The illness is not caused by those who have been living in our country for many years without a secure status. It’s not caused by migrants crossing the border or refugees from around the world waiting for a nation that will take them in.
The illness is the dire poverty that causes desperate people to seek a stable life elsewhere. The illness is the violence of war that causes people to flee for their lives. The illness is human-induced climate change that creates whole populations of refugees seeking a livable environment. The illness is our fear of the other and our belief that higher walls keep us safe from these fears.
The problems are so entrenched there is no cure in sight.
But with a different diagnosis comes a different treatment. Anything and everything we do to address these root causes of suffering is part of the solution. As the saying goes, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Sanctuary is part of the work our congregation has been given in this moment. Edith’s singular story is a window into what ails us, and the ever-widening community of support around her is a doorway into what heals us. Her legal case remains unresolved, but we have a growing resolve to be counted among those who choose neighborliness over isolation, love over fear, bridges over walls.
In other words, when it comes to addressing our deepest illnesses, I’m with Mateo, which means I’m with Edith, which means this holy work continues into another year, which makes this sanctuary prayer as pertinent as ever:
God our Sanctuary, grant us and our neighbors, near and far, courage in our hearts, peace in our homes, and justice in our streets. Amen.
Dios nuestro Santuario, concédenos y nuestros vecinos, cercana y lejana, coraje en nuestros corazones, paz en nuestros hogares, y justicia en nuestras calles. Amen.
Joel Miller is pastor of Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church.
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