"I am not alone"
A Chicago congregation declares itself a sanctuary
for a single mother fighting deportation to Mexico

By Paul Jeffrey
Response magazine, November-December 2006

It's a common story in the United States today: an undocumented immigrant ordered to report for deportation back home, wondering what to do with her young son who is a U.S. citizen.

But Elvira Arellano's story takes an unusual turn. In August, the Mexican woman refused to be deported and instead took refuge in a storefront church in Chicago. When the congregation publicly declared itself a sanctuary for Ms. Arellano and her 7-year old son Saul, the nation-wide debate around immigration took immensely personal form. As the television cameras and satellite trucks arrived to record Ms. Arellano's supporters and detractors on the sidewalk in front of the humble church, the political conflict between family values and immigration law was reduced to one woman and her little boy.

Ms. Arellano was born in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Her grandfather came to the United States under the bracero program that permitted Mexican laborers to work for limited periods in U.S. farm fields. Her father's muscular dystrophy kept him at home to watch the family's farm fail after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allowed agribusiness giants in the U.S. to dump cheap corn in Mexico. Seeking a way to support her family, Ms. Arellano traveled north to the border area to work in U.S. factories, but the meager pay wasn't enough to support her parents back home. So one day in 1997 she walked through the turnstile into the U.S. She was quickly captured and returned to Mexico, but a few days later she crossed the border unimpeded.

She soon moved to Washington State, worked hard, paid taxes and sent money home to Michoacan. She had a child, but soon split from the boy's father. She and Saul moved to Chicago in 2000. And then one day in 2002 she was arrested during an immigration sweep of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. She was released after 12 hours, promising to report later to immigration authorities.

It was during a rally to support the immigrant workers at the airport that Ms. Arellano first met members of Adalberto United Methodist Church. The congregation, located in the predominantly Puerto Rican Humboldt Park neighborhood, was founded less than a decade ago by residents who were frustrated that existing neighborhood churches took no interest in the daily justice struggles of the largely immigrant population. The founders were mostly Hispanic women.

"When the church began, there were no men who wanted to join with us. They were afraid of our group of crazy women. But we women decided we wanted a church where we were respected, where we could pray in peace and work for justice together. Out of that desire came this progressive United Methodist congregation we have today," said Jacobita Alonso, one of the founders.

Named after a young gang member who turned his life around and started working for the neighborhood, only to be killed, the congregation expressed its faith in public spaces.

"They came to the demonstration at the airport and sang songs not of protest, but songs of God and how with faith we can move mountains. I liked their songs and I liked them, and they invited me to the church," Ms. Arellano said. She took them up on the invitation, and soon found a new spiritual home. She threw herself into the church's life, and eventually became the congregation's co-lay leader. The church's pastor, the Rev. Walter Coleman, baptized her son in 2005.

Following her arrest at the airport, Ms. Arellano pled guilty to a charge of using a false Social Security number and was placed on probation. Her deportation was delayed after two Congressional representatives obtained a private relief bill that allowed her to remain in the U.S. to care for her son, who has learning disabilities. Yet not all those arrested in the airport sweep fared as well, and Ms. Arellano took an active role as a spokesperson for immigrant families being split apart by deportation. She founded La Familia Latina Unida (The United Latin Family), an outreach of Adalberto UMC that assists families being separated by deportation. In early 2006, she went on a 21-day hunger strike to demand an immediate moratorium on immigration raids and deportations.

"God blesses families, but the laws that people make are breaking these families apart," she said. "That's unjust."

Such protagonism may have marked her for special attention by immigration authorities, who stepped up deportations in the wake of massive immigrant marches across the country in March 2006. Ms. Arellano was ordered to report for deportation on August 15. She went to church instead. The congregation embraced her, calling on a long tradition of religious communities providing refuge to persecuted individuals. The congregation declared itself a sanctuary.

"Elvira is a member of our church and has been for three years. She's one of our leaders. When it became clear that there were no more immediate legal options for her, we prayed about it, and decided upon the course we've taken," said Mr. Coleman.

"Sanctuary is sometimes seen as a place to hide, but that's not the way that we look at it. Sanctuary is a space provided by faith that allows a witness of faith. Elvira didn't hide. She proclaimed in front of the world that she was here and engaged in an act of civil disobedience to what she considered an unjust law," he said.

According to Ms. Alonso, the other co-lay leader of the congregation, the church's decision was easy to make.

"Elvira is part of us. She's not a criminal. She's simply a mother who's defending the rights of her child who was born in this country. She's a single mother, raising her son alone. So the church decided to support her, and in doing so we're setting an example for other churches. There are lots of cases like hers, and we want other congregations to take responsible action in those cases," Ms. Alonso said.

Beti Guevara, the congregation's associate pastor, said the church's stance has brought the neighborhood together, as people bring food to the church and volunteer in other ways. "This is one more example of the miracles that God can do, uniting Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in the same cause, bringing together two races because we're all one body of Christ," she said.

Ms. Guevara said sanctuary was the last recourse. "We had tried everything else, the politicians and President Bush and signing petitions, and it all failed. So the only recourse we had left was God. We're Elvira's and Saul's family. We love them a lot. Elvira took refuge here because we're her church, and the only one who can help her at this point is God. So we're in prayer and fasting so that the demon that's repressing millions of immigrant lives and keeping them in slavery will be driven away."

Ms. Arellano and the congregation's leaders all admit they've been surprised by the attention the case has garnered. Journalists line up to interview Ms. Arellano, and every day calls come from media outlets in Europe and other faraway places. Supporters from other congregations and immigrant organizations come to offer their support; Mr. Coleman estimates the storefront church had more than 7,000 visitors in the first 20 days.

Among those who came by was the Rev. Gregory Livingston, pastor of Mandell UMC in Chicago and president of the conference's association of Black pastors. He says Adalberto's declaration of sanctuary is a clear statement about the church's responsibility to meet people where they are.

"If people are hungry, let's house them. If they're naked, let's clothe them. If they're homeless, let's house them," he said. "That's the responsibility of the church, not to be concerned with labels. We accept everyone, be they strangers or criminals. Our business is restoration, redemption, forgiveness, and salvation. Our business isn't judgment, that's reserved for God alone. We will be judged on whether we helped the hungry and homeless and the stranger, so we're not to be looking at people and applying labels to them just like everyone else does."

Yet not all who came to the Chicago neighborhood were friendly. Demonstrators from the anti-immigrant Minuteman Project tried to disrupt one Sunday worship service but were kept outside by church members. A group of three white women from a group called Mothers Against Illegal Aliens showed up on the sidewalk long enough to hold a press conference before driving off to complain to county officials that Ms. Arellano was abusing her son by subjecting him to residency in the church.

At night, more than a half dozen congregation members and community volunteers sleep in the church office with Ms. Arellano and her son. In the morning, Saul brushes his teeth and says goodbye to his dog Daisy. (Though part Chihuahua, Ms. Arellano jokes that because she was born in the U.S. the dog is a full U.S. citizen). Then a volunteer escorts Saul to school; Ms. Arellano doesn't leave the church premises.

"This isn't easy for me, but I'm not alone. That's the important part. I'm not alone," she said.

One of those who has often slept in the church is Flor Crisopomo, a Mexican migrant who was herself arrested earlier in 2006, and as a result has become more active in organizing for immigrant rights. Ms. Crisopomo says that should federal immigration agents enter the church to arrest Ms. Arellano, the group won't physically resist.

"We are in a church, and we're learning here how to be peaceful and calm. If they come for her, we will pray, we won't fight them. We'll ask God to let them spare Elvira, or that if they do take her, that they won't mistreat her," she said.

Ms. Crisopomo says the church's declaration of sanctuary has galvanized many in the community who were afraid to criticize what they see as abuse of immigrant workers.

"We're often afraid and don't speak out, but we're slowly gaining our voice," she said.

Mr. Coleman said the congregation has been careful not to politicize an issue that church members insist is an article of faith.

"Since the beginning, Adalberto has been involved with the cause of immigrant workers, because most of the people in the church were undocumented. But too often other people speak on behalf of the undocumented, who are afraid. Our position is that the undocumented should be heard from directly. We don't want to talk about them. They aren't ‘an issue.' Twelve million people aren't an issue, but rather a human reality, and when their voice can begin to be heard, we will begin to find the truth of the matter," he said.

"The truth is Elvira is showing the love of a mother for her son. There's no greater human gift. And she's doing that in full view of the world. We believe the truth of what's really going on with immigrant families emerges clearly and powerfully from her witness."

The congregation and Ms. Arellano have received enthusiastic support and pastoral visits from Chicago Area Bishop Hee-Soo Jung and Chicago Northwestern District Superintendent James Preston.

"While as Christians we may disagree over the best way to fix the nation's broken immigration system," the bishop said in a statement, "we affirm that the Bible directs us to care for the foreigners in our midst (Exodus 23:9) and reminds us that we too are sojourners (Leviticus 25:23)."

Bishop Jung reaffirmed the right of people of faith to engage in civil disobedience, and said the church will "uphold our commitment to families and urge the reunification of families now separated and those under threat of separation by our current broken immigration laws."

Ms. Arellano also got a visit from Bishop Minerva Carcano of Phoenix, the church's first Hispanic woman bishop. "She brought the Holy Spirit with her, and when she prayed with me I knew I wasn't alone. I knew God was with me," said Ms. Arellano.

Mr. Coleman said the congregation's witness can raise questions throughout the church about the nature of hospitality.

"We in the church have traditionally approached this as a question of welcoming the stranger. And there's some truth there; we should welcome God's children, no matter their national origin or condition," he said.

"But this concept of offering hospitality assumes that you are the owner of the house and that you're offering hospitality to someone else. That's a problem in the church. We're a majority white denomination, although we won't be much longer. We have a tendency in the church to think we're the owner, and when you're the owner you get to decide how much hospitality you're going to extend. You can say, ‘We're gonna let you into the front room, but not into the back room.' We need to discern exactly what we mean by hospitality. We can put ads on television saying we're a welcoming church. But we need to ask: Who owns the house? I believe God does. So whether we're welcoming or not isn't in our hands. It's God who opens the doors and says, ‘Come on in.'"