St. Thomas More gives sanctuary to two families

| Bridget Ryder | December 18, 2017 | 0 Comments
Sanctuary parish

Jesuit Father Warren Sazama, pastor of St. Thomas More in St. Paul, stands in the parish’s Holy Family Apartment, used to temporarily house immigrants. It features a two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen, living room and two bathrooms. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Eight months after declaring itself a sanctuary parish for undocumented immigrants, St. Thomas More in St. Paul has hosted two families. The parish’s hospitality gave the families time to sort out situations complicated by their lack of legal immigration status.

“You try to prepare, but then you have to listen and see what the family needs,” said parishioner Lisa Amman, 39.

Jesuit Father Warren Sazama, pastor of St. Thomas More, credits Amman with suggesting that the parish become a sanctuary church. In April, following three discernment meetings and four working groups that explored the possibilities and implications of such a move, the parish publicly declared itself a place of sanctuary for immigrants threatened with deportation, particularly in cases where children would be separated from their parents, or young people who had grown up in the United States would be forced to return to countries they hardly knew.

To accommodate potential guests, the parish set up the Holy Family Apartment. Volunteers and contracted professionals transformed an area in the upper floor of the parish center into a two-bedroom apartment complete with a kitchen, living room and two bathrooms. It’s building code compliant for housing up to six people. In July, the parish dedicated the apartment, and a few weeks later, it received its first request to shelter a refugee family.

Calls from the chaplain at Hill-Murray School in Maplewood and from a social worker for Ramsey County came into the parish back-to-back. In the first call, a mother and her three young children had come to the United States from Mozambique several weeks before. Through a series of events, they became homeless, sleeping on the playground of the Catholic high school where school staff had found them one morning. They had nowhere else to go. The father of the family was still in Africa. The family had tourist visas, but they needed to apply for asylum.

The Holy Family Apartment was ready for them, but there was one complication: The family didn’t speak English, but rather French, Portuguese and their native tribal language. Father Sazama called a parishioner who was a French teacher to accompany him to pick up the family. The four spent a long weekend in the apartment before moving into Mary’s Place, the transitional housing program of Sharing and Caring Hands in Minneapolis.

Just a few days after the first guests left, Father Sazama received another call. This time, the pastor of a parish in Minneapolis was looking for temporary shelter for a man and his 6-year-old son. Omar, who asked that The Catholic Spirit not use his last name, had fled Honduras to avoid being forced to work as a drug runner. His brother-in-law was killed by the gang he refused to work for. Then, when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, where they were staying, Omar brought his son north and sought assistance. He also had a court date in Texas for a deportation hearing. The Holy Family Apartment provided the father and son a safe place to consider their options. Ultimately, Omar decided to return to Texas and try his fate before the judge, since he had family there who could care for his son in the event he was deported.

In both cases, Father Sazama explained, “We gave them emergency shelter while they figured out their next steps.”

Using its apartment as transitional housing has become the mission of the parish’s self-declared sanctuary status.

“There’s no legal status to being a sanctuary anything,” Father Sazama explained. “It’s more of a moral status that goes back to the Middle Ages.”

According to Catholic Encyclopedia, the right to sanctuary was a legally protected practice in Europe that allowed those fleeing justice or persecution to find asylum in churches. The practice ended during the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, the moral status of churches may protect immigrants, though there is no law that would stop immigration authorities from pursuing undocumented immigrants on church property.

In the case of St. Thomas More, the parish has decided it would cooperate should an immigration agent knock on its door with a proper search warrant. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seems to be abiding by a 2011 memo that discourages enforcement actions at schools and churches. Earlier this year, Jeanette Vizguerra made national headlines when she sought refuge in a Denver church to avoid possible deportation. She was later granted an extension of her deportation stay so that she could remain with her family.

“I think if [immigrants] are staying here, they would be much safer,” Father Sazama said.

He reasons that the firestorm that would follow should ICE arrest a family at the parish would likely be enough to deter the agency from taking any of the church’s guests into custody on the church grounds. Nevertheless, should ICE decide to do so, the parish has a plan that includes having observers present during the enforcement action.

Father Sazama emphasized that the main purpose of the sanctuary ministry is to offer people a place to stay and to connect them to resources.

“It’s really been very needed, and I’m glad we’re doing it,” he said.

Besides shelter, the parish offers companionship, food, clothing and connection to additional resources such as legal aid as each family may need, although helping the families find legal assistance has proved the biggest challenge. Amman said the Trump administration’s decision to end both the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, commonly called DACA, and the Temporary Protective Status for Haitians who fled their country after the 2010 earthquake has overwhelmed immigration lawyers.

“We pulled all the strings — and this parish has a lot of strings to pull — and we still have not been able to find the family [from Mozambique] legal representation,” Amman said. The parish also engages in advocacy efforts for immigrants’ rights.

As ICE arrests have increased nationwide and the word about the parish’s apartments has spread, the parish continues to get referrals.

“Some of it’s just relational,” Amman said of how the parish has helped its guests. “We are trying to receive people as Christ.”

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