In an extraordinary step, the First Congregational Church in Amherst is providing physical sanctuary to undocumented immigrant Lucio Perez.
Perez, a Springfield resident who has been in the country for 20 years, told a group of about 100 clergy members, activists, reporters, and other interested residents on Thursday, Oct. 19, that he is grateful to the church.
Perez was scheduled to be deported this month and on Oct. 18 was denied his appeal for a stay of deportation.
He recounted, in Spanish through an interpreter, the emotions he felt leaving his family.
Church leaders expressed happiness that Perez would be safe within their walls, but lamented that immigration law had led to the need for Perez to seek sanctuary.
Under a sunny sky, those gathered sang “This Little Light of Mine” and waved signs in support of Perez outside the church. Pastor Vicki Kemper approached the microphone shortly after noon, which stood under a large “Black Lives Matter” sign. She said that in an ideal world, the need for such a step would not have arisen.
“None of us wanted this day to come,” she said. “For months and months First Church Amherst has been following the law, playing by the rules, we’ve been signing petitions, attending prayer vigils and demonstrations, learning about immigration law, training to protect our neighbors and praying without ceasing, all so this day would not come.”
Kemper said Perez has also tried to do things “by the book.” Perez recently had to go to Hartford to receive an ankle bracelet and prove that he had a ticket to return to his native Guatemala, and could have fled at that time, Kemper said.
When Perez was denied a stay of deportation, First Church Amherst decided to open their doors to him and let him stay inside, Kemper said.
“This is not an action we take lightly,” she said. “At the same time it is an action we feel that we must take.”
Kemper introduced Perez, who took the microphone next, along with an interpreter.
“Buenas tardes a todos,” he said. “Good afternoon to everyone.”
Perez recounted how difficult the situation has been for him. He described the hurt he was facing when told he would have to be separated from his wife and children, who are United States citizens.
“It’s not fair because I have not done anything bad to people in this place,” he said in Spanish. “I’ve only come to work and to work hard to give a better future to my children.”
Perez continued that his religious faith is important to him and was putting faith in God as he takes sanctuary in the First Congregational Church of Amherst.
“I’m not a criminal,” he said. “I’m here to confront the situation and I hope that you’ll help me pray.”
He said that it would be difficult being separated from his family, but he has faith all will be resolved with a good outcome.
Russ Vernon-Jones, a member of the church congregation and elected moderator of the congregation. He described the choice that was being made as “living out our faith.”
“It means opening our doors, our arms, our hearts to Lucio Perez,” he said. “It means us providing a safe place for Lucio to live while he pursues justice and seeks the right to live safely and fairly in this country that he has called home for almost 20 years.”
Vernon-Jones acknowledged that the church faces risks by making the decision to provide sanctuary to Perez, but he said he took comfort in knowing that he was in Amherst, where the Town Meeting, Select Board, Town Manager, and chief of police, all signed off on a town bylaw making Amherst a sanctuary city.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.