SPSA Providing Sanctuary for Immigrant Mother

SPSA Providing Sanctuary for Immigrant Mother


Debora Barrios and her children, Kener and Bereneice, sit inside the apartment created for them to be in sanctuary at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in Manhattan. (Photos by Cinthya Santos Briones)
To read a message from Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton about responding to the immigration crisis as followers of Christ, click here.

Earlier this month, the Church of St. Peter and St. Andrew United Methodist (SPSA) in Manhattan was asked to put into action a commitment they had made in January 2018 to become a sanctuary church.

Debora Barrios sought refuge in the church on June 4, bringing her 2½ -year-old daughter with her. She was facing imminent deportation back to Guatemala.

During a news conference in the church sanctuary on June 21, Barrios – with her 10-year-old son at her side – said, “I ask for the opportunity to present my case to the judge and fight for my right to live with dignity and safety. But most importantly, I want my children to know their dreams.”

“It is our firm belief at St. Paul and St. Andrew that God’s abundant love and radical welcome are simply for all,” said associate pastor, Rev. Lea Matthews, to those gathered. “The U.S. is her home and separating her from her kids is inhumane, it’s wrong and it is decidedly un-Christian.”

According to Rev. James “K” Karpen, senior pastor at SPSA, Barrios came to the United States from her native Guatemala in 2005, when she was just 19. She fled her country in fear for her life and hoped to gain asylum here. After she missed a hearing because the notice went to the wrong address, her asylum case was closed. The attorney that she worked with was unable to get it reopened. But Barrios remained in this country, married and had two children, who are American citizens. Her son, who is living with other family members, has been joining his mother and sister on the weekends while school is in session.

Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) was alerted to Barrios’ whereabouts after a recent routine traffic stop. She was told to show up at ICE with a plane ticket to Guatemala, Karpen said. To avoid deportation and separation from her family, Barrios contacted the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) who made the request to SPSA. Typically, immigration authorities will not enter houses of worship to deport immigrants.

Matthews took that Saturday night call asking if the church would be willing to provide an immediate safe space for a family.

While there weren’t many details at first, “when you get the call it all becomes very real,” Matthews said, adding that the trustees had agreed to provide temporary shelter. “Yet none of us was willing to say no at that point,” she added.”
Debora Barrios plays with her daughter in the courtyard of the church where she has taken refuge from deportation.
But there were many pieces to pull together and questions to answer for the Upper West Side church: Could they provide safety? Could they designate a space for the family?  How could they incorporate a family into the building? In the end, the congregation had just eight hours to turn a room in the church into an apartment for the family.

“It was utterly bizarre to be preparing this space, and then meet Debora and show her the space,” said Matthews. “She took about two steps into the church and broke down crying . . . it was then that the profound weight of what we were doing came on me. We want to do right by them . . . to get their story out. It’s not just her fight, this is our community’s fight.”

SPSA calls itself a “community of radical welcome” and has a long history of fighting for justice for those living on the margins, especially the LGBTQIA and immigrant communities.

“We’ve been appalled by what was happening to the people we know, to our friends,” said Karpen, referring to the many immigrant families who visit the church each week for worship, feeding ministries, tutoring programs or to visit any of the organizations that are housed in the building. So members of the congregation began to work specifically with the NSC more than a year ago to accompany immigrants to ICE and legal appointments. And they joined in the “Jericho Walks,” public demonstrations for immigration reform that circle the ICE headquarters at Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan.

“We’ve been working to amplify the voices on the margins,” said Karpen, who was arrested during a recent immigration protest. He noted that he’s encountered parents from the tutoring program who are terrified with the actions of ICE under President Donald Trump’s administration. Those relationships made the church decision to provide sanctuary an easy one.

“It was hard to ignore Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor,” Karpen said. “At least we’re doing something. We were feeling paralyzed by what’s going on.”

And according to Karpen, Barrios also wanted her voice to be heard, so the press conference was arranged at the church.

“Going public was her wish,” he said. “She sees what’s going on at the border. She’s afraid when families are being split up all over the place.”

The backdrop to the news conference was the president’s directive to his administration to try to detain asylum-seeking families together. This seeming reversal of the “zero-tolerance” policy came after an enormous public and denominational outcry over the separation of some 2,300 children from their parents at the southern border. Some of those children are now being housed in New York City, according to media reports.

Barrios and her family are settling into their new “home” and have been embraced by the congregation and all the groups using the church building. Daughter Bereneice is attending the Spanish immersion preschool in the church and son Kener has explored every nook and cranny of the building.

“This is where SPSA shines . . . this is when 30 years of justice work pays off,” Matthews said. After prayerful discernment, the church had decided “in theory that we would extend physical sanctuary” – they never expected it to be more than a temporary arrangement.

But the congregation has gotten on board with the new direction and responded overwhelmingly to requests for volunteer teams to handle food, laundry, legal questions, prayer, and a rapid response team.

Matthews said she is working on a long-term plan that organizes volunteers in the church that will create sustainability and rely on lay leadership for the sanctuary ministry. “We’d like to see the entire community working with the family,” she said.

“This congregation has been working for racial justice, and more recently how it intersects with the U.S. immigration policy,” Matthews said. “This is active resistance . . . this is a physical call to follow Jesus.”

Matthews recalled Barrios' first visit to the “supermarket-style” food pantry in the church run by the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. Barrios stood in the middle of all the activity and seemed rather confused, Matthews said.

But then she looked at Matthews and said in amazement, “ It’s like a whole city in a church.”

It’s been particularly hard for the kids to say goodbye to each other each time the 10-year-old had to leave the church, Matthews noted. The separation from her son has also been difficult for Barrios. Barrios lamented to Matthews that she didn’t get to go to his soccer games or his middle school graduation.

“She told me, ‘I’m the mom who’s always there’,” Matthews said.

To watch an interview with Barrios and Matthews on the "Mic" website, click here.