Oak Park church becomes sanctuary for refugee

St. Christopher's houses Guatemalan facing deportation

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Donal Eduardo Valiente Marroquin, aka "Lalo," fled his native Guatemala last summer, fearing for his life, because he had dared to resist one of the gangs terrorizing the population there. 

His odyssey has led to him, since Dec. 13, 2017, to taking sanctuary in the basement of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Oak Park. 

"It was an adventure that I decided to take," he said, "hoping that God would help me find a place without knowing exactly where I would end up."

Lalo was scooped up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), soon after crossing the border in October into California, because he didn't have a visa and said he couldn't afford to pay the high price for one in Guatemala.

ICE initially transferred Lalo to Arizona but he ended up, about a month later, in McHenry County Jail in Illinois, where he was imprisoned while awaiting deportation.

Behind bars, things went from bad to worse. Because he was experiencing stomach pain, he was taken to Centegra Hospital in McHenry where he underwent an appendectomy, after which he was told he had advanced stage cancer. He underwent eight hours of surgery to remove a tumor in his neck, leaving cancer in a lung and thyroid untreated.

That's when a doctor at the hospital called the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights hotline, which was routed to Mony Ruiz-Velasco the director of PASO (Proyecto de Accion de los Suburbios del Oeste, or the West Suburban Action Project), a grassroots advocacy organization, which, among other services, offers legal assistance to immigrants who are undocumented.

According to Ruiz-Velasco [who did all of the translating during our interview with Lalo], the doctor reported that, at first, Lalo had been shackled to his bed by the immigration officials, even following his surgeries. Two agents stayed in his hospital room at all times until, suddenly, after his second surgery, they disappeared, leaving Lalo alone with no clothes, no money, no place to go and an order to show up in court to face deportation.

Ruiz-Velasco visited Lalo the next day, filed as his attorney of record and shouldered the daunting challenge of meeting his many needs. 

At that point, St. Christopher's got involved. Fortuitously, Ruiz-Velasco had been meeting with two members of Unity Temple, two members of St. Christopher's, and Rev. Eric Biddy, St. Christopher's rector, to explore ways the two congregations could work together on the issue of sanctuary. 

The two Unity Temple members, Clara Lewis and Josh Ridenour, are leaders of the congregation's Immigrant and Refugee Resettlement Team, which had already resettled three Rohingya families and one from the Ivory Coast. 

Biddy said that although Unity Temple was already deeply involved in working for immigrants' rights and would provide the majority of volunteers, they had no place in their facility to house Lalo, so that ball was in St. Christopher's court. 

Three days later Lalo moved into a hastily put together apartment in St. Christopher's basement.

In making the decision unilaterally, Biddy was taking a risk, because the normal process for providing sanctuary typically involves a discussion to achieve a consensus of the faithful, followed by a decision by the vestry or board.

"In this case," Biddy said, "we did not have time to reach that. Lalo was going to be released from the hospital within days."

Aware of the wide diversity of political opinion among his parishioners, Biddy defended his decision not on the basis of political policy, but on the basis of faith. 

"I've been trying to make the case," he said, "that this is a decision of faith not a decision of political partisanship. 

"We're not doing this to flip off the president; we're doing this because of Jesus."

Biddy took some comfort in the fact that at their national assembly in 2015, the Episcopal Church had voted to support congregations involved in sanctuary work. 

"For Christianity," Biddy said, "hospitality, welcoming the stranger, and serving those who are 'the least of these' is non-negotiable. It felt like one of those crisis decision moments. Do you take the risk of faithful action and then figure out the consequences, or do you let the chance to be faithful pass you by because you have to do the moral math first? So I said yes."

Rev. Alan Taylor, senior minister at Unity Temple, also described his congregation's motivation in terms of religious belief.

"Unitarian Universalist congregations agree to promote and affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every individual as our first principle," Taylor said. "Our second principle is to promote and affirm justice, equity and compassion in all human relations."

Regarding consequences, Biddy acknowledged that "not everyone at St. Christopher's is delighted with what they construe as activist ministry" but overall, the reaction in the parish has been "overwhelmingly positive."

Ruiz-Velasco said she and Lalo have already attended two hearings regarding Lalo's status and they have one more, which has not yet been scheduled. Anytime he is away from the church, Lalo risks ICE detainment. However, he says, he believes God will take care of him.

Their argument for Lalo staying in the U.S. is based on his request for asylum. Because of the violence in Guatemala and the government's inability to protect its citizens, Lalo faces certain death if he returns. In addition, they argue, if Lalo is forced to return to Guatemala, he likely will die without access to medical care.

He begins chemotherapy this week.

"I feel very grateful," said Lalo. "I never imagined that coming to the United States I would receive so much love and support from people who did not even know me. I'm grateful to Padre Eric, Padre Taylor, and both congregations for taking care of me; and to PASO for helping me fight this immigration case."

Reader Comments

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Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: March 11th, 2018 6:02 PM

Amazing that the church would give up its property tax exempt status and become an apartment building.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 9th, 2018 8:15 PM

Nick and Brian: great points!

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: March 9th, 2018 3:12 PM

Hey, Polido, you cant get it even in your own country. However, the elected officials can.

Nick Polido  

Posted: March 8th, 2018 4:01 PM

What other Country after illegally entering could you get an attorney, surgery and chemo, plus an apartment....

Mike Hanline  

Posted: March 8th, 2018 12:30 PM

The Church (i.e., organized religion in general) has long inserted itself into politics and government affairs, and certainly well before immigration ever became a hot button issue (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, etc.). You can't just pick and choose when it is and isn't acceptable based on your own personal beliefs.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 5:34 PM

I remember St. Joseph going to his home town with his family to be couned for the census.Byt order of Ceasar.I seem to remember Jesus stating "render unto Ceasars which is Ceasas, render unto the Lord what is the Lords" Hey that , Jesus, he didn't know nothing.

Renee Geweniger Zoltowski  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 5:28 PM

This is such a wonderful way to show compassion to another fellow human being. Peace

Karen de la Mundo  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 5:14 PM

It is wonderful to see a church actually follow in the steps of Christ. Thank you for stepping up. Wishing Lalo a full recovery. Wishing those helping a fellow human being love for being decent human beings.

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