Church on a mission to extend sanctuary learns to live with uncertainty

Juana sits on her bed in the bedroom the church made for her.

Guatemalan native Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, who was facing deportation, came to live at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro in May 2017. Photos by Alex Maness

The first church in North Carolina to extend sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant facing deportation finds that the decision to open their doors is just the beginning of the journey.

The volunteers know the drill:

The doors must stay locked.

No law enforcement officers are allowed on the premises without an original copy of an arrest warrant signed by a judge.

If immigration enforcement officers arrive, the volunteer on duty must call six people in order on a list kept in a black three-ring binder in the multipurpose room.

Those are among the safety protocols put into place by St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, the first congregation in North Carolina in recent history to offer sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant facing immediate threat of deportation.


Volunteers who stay at the church with Ortega have instructions for how to respond to law enforcement.

The church added the measures to protect its most vulnerable new occupant: Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, a 45-year-old Guatemalan native who came to live at St. Barnabas in May.

The election of President Donald J. Trump, who ran as an immigration hardliner and has cranked up state and federal enforcement of immigration laws, has spurred churches to offer sanctuary to those facing deportation. An estimated 1,000 churches across the country have pledged to support the efforts, including opening their doors to people fearing repatriation.


A sign at the church.

But so far, only a dozen U.S. congregations have actively provided shelter to undocumented immigrants. Notably, Greensboro, the state’s third-largest city, has two such churches. (The other is Congregational United Church of Christ.)

In the four months since Ortega moved into St. Barnabas, the 125-member congregation has doubled down on its commitment to offer sanctuary and to ensure the health and safety of its fragile resident. Ortega’s arrival has united the church in a conviction that this particular form of civil disobedience is the right thing to do. But it has also added to the church workload and introduced a new level of uncertainty.

Would your organization be willing to make such a long-term, open-ended committment?

“The biggest misconception about sanctuary is that once a person is in sanctuary, it’s done,” said Andrew Willis Garces, organizing coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that helped the church establish sanctuary. “That’s totally the wrong way to look at it. It’s more than, ‘We’ve got them situated’; now we have to figure out a way to get them out.”

A social justice orientation

That a small church of mostly older members has taken the lead in sheltering an undocumented immigrant may seem surprising. But not to the Rev. Randall Keeney, the church vicar.


Ortega chats with the Rev. Randall Keeney outside St. Barnabas.

Small churches function more like extended families, he said, and may have greater theological and political unity. Those with older members, especially retirees, may also have more time on their hands.

“People get to know each other pretty well, and they have an opportunity to care for one another more than in a corporate-type church,” Keeney said.

St. Barnabas, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has always had a social justice orientation. Many of its members describe themselves as “children of the ’60s.” They were active in civil rights struggles and opposed the war in Vietnam.

The church building, a modern brick edifice on a flat concrete slab, is handicapped-accessible and welcoming to people with physical and developmental disabilities. Its vision statement says it works “cooperatively with other groups to provide direct community service and to effect systemic change.”


The decision to offer sanctuary reflects the church's history and values.

In more recent years, the church has been open to gays and lesbians, and its vicar has blessed a few of those relationships. He was arrested twice for marching in Moral Monday rallies protesting the Republican-led policies of the North Carolina legislature.

Keeney was introduced to the problem of undocumented immigrants facing deportation at a League of Women Voters luncheon four years ago. There he met a man who had fled El Salvador to escape gangs and was applying for asylum. Soon, the congregation began helping him, his wife and his son.

Last year, when it became likely that the man would be deported, the church began to study and pray about whether it should offer him sanctuary. They learned that churches that take in undocumented persons might be breaking a federal criminal law that prohibits concealing, harboring or shielding undocumented immigrants.

What is your organization's discernment process for decisions of this magnitude?

After consulting with lawyers and immigrant advocates such as the American Friends Service Committee, they also learned that churches -- along with schools and hospitals -- are considered “sensitive locations,” meaning that federal immigration enforcement officers will avoid arresting, searching or interviewing people there under most circumstances.

Ultimately, the Salvadoran who had prompted the church’s discernment was sentenced to detention while awaiting an asylum hearing.

But in mid-May, Keeney got a call from the American Friends organization and was told that another undocumented immigrant, a mother and grandmother who has lived in the U.S. for 24 years with no criminal record, was ordered to leave the country by May 31. To ensure her compliance, ICE officers fastened an ankle-monitoring bracelet to her right leg and told her it would remain there until she boarded a flight out of the country.


Ortega's whereabouts are known to the authorities through her electronic monitoring ankle bracelet.

A church member was dispatched to meet Ortega and her family, and the vestry voted unanimously to offer her sanctuary.

Ortega had initially escaped Guatemala because she was threatened by guerrillas. In the U.S., she had applied for asylum and was granted a work permit that was revoked.

After meeting Ortega and her family, the church called a congregational meeting after church services. Keeney explained the legalities involved.

Ortega would not be hiding at the church. Thanks to her ankle bracelet, immigration officials know exactly where she is.

While transporting an undocumented immigrant is clearly illegal, circuit courts have interpreted the harboring and shielding provisions of the law differently. A church was prosecuted for transporting undocumented immigrants in the 1980s; however, no church has been prosecuted for extending sanctuary in recent memory.

Have you or your faith community ever taken risks that led to learning and growth, increased workload and uncertainty? What are you willing to risk?

Some members asked about finances. How much would it cost to house Ortega? Keeney said the church would have to pay for some minimal expenses, such as cable TV and higher power bills, but that a special fund would be created that would accept donations from the community.

Finally, people wondered how long Ortega would stay in sanctuary. Keeney didn’t have a good answer. Ultimately, he said, “If we’re going to do this, we need to do this to the end.”

Then he asked for a voice vote. All present said yea.

“This was a very easy decision,” said Christine Merriman, a member of the vestry. “We had been deeply thinking about it for a while, and we didn’t have negatives.”

Round-the-clock protection

Shortly after the church voted to offer Ortega sanctuary, Keeney got on the phone with the interim bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.


Ortega and volunteer Christine Merriman,
who stays in shifts with Ortega at the church.

He voiced the church’s conviction that in light of the nation’s broken immigration policies, St. Barnabas members felt called to extend sanctuary to undocumented people.

Bishop Suffragan Anne Hodges-Copple knew of the church’s efforts with the man from El Salvador and supported them. After consultations with the diocesan chancellor, a lawyer, she decided not to interfere with the church’s plan.

While the diocese didn’t exactly bless St. Barnabas’ efforts, neither did it stand in the way.

“I would not second-guess their decision to open their doors,” said Hodges-Copple, referring to St. Barnabas. “But this is definitely not a policy of the diocese.”

Hodges-Copple said she welcomes a range of responses to the national immigration crisis, so long as congregations thoughtfully engage with the issue.

Having run the idea past the bishop, the practical work of offering sanctuary began.

A vesting room was cleared and turned into a bedroom outfitted initially with a futon (later, a queen-size bed), a bureau and a small TV. An adjacent nursery was transformed into a sitting room with a couch and a desk.

The church had two bathrooms, one for men and one for women, but no shower. Ortega’s son-in-law, a plumber, volunteered to install a shower in one of them, and the other was turned into a unisex bathroom.

Ortega, who until recently worked as a seamstress for a furniture company in nearby High Point, quickly settled in, receiving frequent visits from her husband, Carlos, a naturalized U.S. citizen, her four children, aged 15 to 28, and two grandchildren.

“So many people here have a huge heart,” Ortega said. “Without knowing me, they opened their doors. That’s something really beautiful that I will never forget.”


Ortega snapped a photo of her grandchildren in a recent visit.

The church decided early on that should immigration officers come knocking, it would not be wise for Ortega herself to answer the door.

That meant someone had to be at the church 24/7 alongside her. The church arranged three shifts during the day and one shift overnight.

Scheduling those shifts fell to the Rev. Leslie Bland, the church deacon, who has been slotting 28 shifts a week for the past four months. By August, Bland had a list of 38 volunteers, mostly church members, but a few from Episcopal churches in the larger Greensboro area.

“As I hear of more names, I talk it over with Randall [Keeney], and if we’re confident we know these people, then I send out an invitation to them to sign up,” she said.

Anne Carter, a 73-year-old St. Barnabas member, has been volunteering for two overnight shifts a week, sleeping on a folding bed with a mattress in the church’s multipurpose room.

“I used to work nights as a nurse,” she said. “At least when I do nights here, I get to sleep. I sleep as good as I do at home.”


Ortega has a standing invitation to the Monday Ladies Group that meets for lunch and a discussion. To the right of the group is a recliner where volunteers pass the hours while keeping watch.

So far, the process has worked smoothly, in large part because Ortega has endeared herself to so many. She loves to cook and sew. She prepared pupusas (stuffed tortillas) for the church’s women’s group and uses her sewing machine to make pillows and tablecloths to earn a little money. One St. Barnabas church member tutors her weekly in English. Another has taught her needlepoint.

Church members say they need more volunteers, though they don’t like to talk about volunteer fatigue or burnout.

“I haven’t heard any comments to the effect of, ‘No, I wish we weren’t doing this,’” said Mary Lee Rembert, the senior warden, the primary elected lay leader of the congregation. “That has not come up.”


Ortega spends time cooking and sewing, and also is taking English lessons.

Building a public campaign

For St. Barnabas, now begins the hard part: finding a way to get Ortega back to her home in Asheboro, North Carolina. Since she has already exhausted all the legal means available to her, the church must now agitate to get her a so-called “stay of removal.”

Barring the passage of legislation that would allow a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the church must appeal to members of Congress who have direct oversight of federal immigration agencies.

“Launching a public campaign is a lot of the work,” said Garces, the American Friends organizing coordinator. “In order to get the political willpower we need to make a difference in those cases, we’ll need a lot more people of faith and religious leaders to step up, especially people less vocal about the issues already. We absolutely won’t make headway without more leadership from faith communities on this issue.”

What role do community partnerships play in St. Barnabas becoming a place of sanctuary?

Keeney has written letters to U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and U.S. Rep. Mark Walker inviting them to share a meal with Ortega at the church. So far, neither has responded. The American Friends organization is also working on several fronts.

In the meantime, both the church and Ortega are living with a lot of unknowns.

“Being here is difficult, because you’re locked in here and you can’t go out,” Ortega said. “You feel depressed. You feel a little bit desperate.”

Still, Ortega is making do, and she is thankful for the help and support she’s received.

“They’ve been very good to me,” she said. “I’m very, very grateful. They keep me comfortable.”

Each Sunday, she attends services, often alongside her family. The church has begun reciting the first Scripture reading in Spanish, and Ortega typically volunteers for the honor.

One Sunday in August, her two 9-year-old granddaughters performed a liturgical dance to the tune of contemporary Christian singer Lauren Daigle’s “First.” Another Sunday, Ortega sang “How Great Thou Art,” in Spanish, her eyes closed and tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Who would ever say our country would be safer without her or our faith would be firmer if we allowed her to be kicked out of our country?” Merriman said. “It’s not even thinkable if you know her as a person.”

And so church members go on, holding on to the uncertainty as they rally around their new occupant. They are not alone and share notes with Congregational UCC, the other sanctuary church in town, as well as a newly established network of sanctuary churches across the country.

There’s no question the decision to offer sanctuary has at times been onerous. It has, as one person put it, “sucked all the oxygen out of the room.”

But as Keeney explained, “Being a person of faith sometimes requires we do risky things.” The gospel, he said, demands it.

Questions to consider

  • What strikes you most about the choices and actions of the congregation of St. Barnabas in offering sanctuary to Juana Luz Tobar Ortega?
  • Where do you struggle most in reflecting on this story?
  • The congregation entered into a process of communal discernment in order to make the decision to offer sanctuary. What is your organization's discernment process for decisions of this magnitude?
  • Andrew Willis Garces of the American Friends Service Committee stresses that offering sanctuary is just the beginning of this church's committment to help Ortega. Would your organization be willing to make such a long-term, open-ended committment?
  • St. Barnabas chose to take risks based on their values and practices. Have you or your faith community ever taken risks that led to learning and growth, increased workload and uncertainty? What are you willing to risk?
  • What role do community partnerships play in St. Barnabas becoming a place of sanctuary? Does your organization have partners with which it can engage in this way?