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In Sanctuary at West Kensington Ministry (from l. to r.) 11-year-old Arturo; 9-year-old Angela Mariana; Ermer Fernandez, Angela’s husband; Angela Navarro, and her mother, María Turcios. Photo: Samantha Madera/AL DÍA News
In Sanctuary at West Kensington Ministry (from l. to r.) 11-year-old Arturo; 9-year-old Angela Mariana; Ermer Fernandez, Angela’s husband; Angela Navarro, and her mother, María Turcios. Photo: Samantha Madera/AL DÍA News

Angela Navarro chooses sanctuary in church over ‘living imprisoned by fear’

The room where Angela, her children, and her husband will be staying was once a playroom in the church. It has been hastily but cheerily refurbished to…

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We've lost count of the people we've interviewed who have the threat of deportation hanging over their heads. 

We’ve lost count of the number of young U.S. citizens we’ve seen holding signs saying “Please don’t deport my mommy.”

We’ve tucked into memory the stories from people sitting next to us on the bus, in our congregation on Sundays, or serving up soup at our favorite lunch spot. The circumstances of the story may vary, but they all include hope, and fear.

It is not any different with Angela Navarro, the mother of two U.S. citizen children who Tuesday entered into sanctuary at West Kensington Ministry in Philadelphia — the first undocumented immigrant on the East Coast to do so.

The room where Angela, her children, and her husband will be staying was once a playroom in the church. It has been hastily but cheerily refurbished to accommodate the family, and some of their belongings (most of the former household is now in storage). A bathroom is being installed and the church kitchen is a room away. 

Friends from the Catholic congregation where Angela has been an active member — St. Joan of Arc — have promised to help get her kids to school from their new home. Angela’s husband, Ermer, will do all the grocery shopping for the family, spend hours at the laundromat, do whatever running around to fulfill household and child-centered duties he can before, between and after work. Because once in sanctuary, Angela cannot leave.

Why would anyone choose this kind of proscribed existence?

Angela — who has one of those young, open faces on which emotion can be easily read — says she has chosen it because even the limitations of living in sanctuary are “better than living imprisoned by fear.” 

Fear that has kept her from visiting her mother — because ICE has already been to her mother’s home a number of times, hoping to catch Angela. Fear that has prompted her family to move from one dwelling to the next, ahead of the late night warrantless searches by ICE that other undocumented immigrants have experienced. Fear, especially, that one day she might go out to run an errand, be apprehended and deported to Honduras, and never be able to be with her family again. 

Family is the reason Angela chose sanctuary. Her own mother left her behind in Honduras to come to the U.S. (to work packing fruits and agricultural products) when Angela was 8, and a year later, her father left as well. The money they sent back on a monthly basis to the six children was much more than could be earned in the rural area of Olancho state where they lived, but Angela still gets choked up speaking about how lost she felt growing up without her parents.

When Angela made her long journey from Honduras through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, she was pregnant and says she was tremendously lucky to experience hardship, but not violence, as she crossed. 

While we’re interviewing her, the children — Arturo, 11, and Angela Mariana, 9 — come up often, randomly, to throw their arms around her in a hug, as if making certain she’s still here. She tells us her fear of being whisked away and forcibly separated from them is their fear too, and that despite her explanations, they don’t understand why anyone would want to deport their petite, soft-spoken, deeply religious mother.

Despite administrative memos that prioritize deportation for those who are deemed dangerous, the vast majority of those threatened with deportation from Philadelphia are just ordinary people: this family; a single, working mother; a pastor with grown children and 20 years in the community; a married construction worker ... none of them threats to security or national well-being.

As much as fear has been a constant in Angela’s life, so has faith. The pastor from her parish, Father John Olenick, C.Ss.R., accompanied the family as they entered into sanctuary, and spoke of the young mother’s devotion and deep connection to her community. Visitation and St. Joan of Arc have been central to the Latino immigrant community, and clergy and laypeople at Visitation work closely with the New Sanctuary Movement. 

But despite the support of Father Olenick and Angela’s co-parishioners, the church that has actually been willing to draw on the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition of offering sanctuary within physical walls (and bearing the attendant risks of doing so)  is Presbyterian —West Kensington Ministry — and does so through the fearless spiritual leadership and moral guidance of its pastor, Rev. Adán Mairena.

“As people of faith, we respect and adhere to laws,” he said. “But when the laws are unjust ... we obey Divine law.”

Rev. Mairena says his congregation is willing to offer sanctuary to Angela for as long as it is necessary, even though there is no assurance that the church will not suffer repercussions from doing so. But the congregation, also a member of the New Sanctuary Movement, is strong in its commitment to social justice. 

Offering sanctuary to someone with a final deportation order may be controversial, Rev. Mairena says, “but I’d feel like a hypocrite not to offer my help. That would be to go against my beliefs and principles.”

When the doors to West Kensington Ministry opened, literally and figuratively, to Angela Navarro and her family, what opened along with them was her hope for, and faith in, the possibility of a future lived freely. 

The open doors to that sanctuary represent something else to the rest of us in Philadelphia. That, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that we are charged to do — fearlessly — the hard, risky work of changing what is unjust into just. 

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