WORTHINGTON -- Shortly after Donald Trump was named president, the Rev. Jim Callahan and the St. Mary’s Catholic Church community felt the need to make a statement on behalf of immigrants and refugees.
“You would go to the school and kids were crying,” he said. “They were worried about their parents, so we decided that as a church we needed to make a statement to the community.”
A female member of St. Mary’s who came to the United States 18 years ago from Guatemala who didn’t wish to be identified said the news about Trump promising to deport millions of illegal immigrants frightens her, but not as much as it does her children.
“It hurts more my children than me,” she said. “I have a country that I love, but my children were born here and raised here.”
St. Mary’s members have always been advocates for immigrants, providing them food, shelter and legal advice. Callahan said the church council, along with its members, thought post-election was an appropriate time to announce the church as an official sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.
“This is who we are called to be,” Callahan said. “We are just putting a name to something that we have been doing. We are just saying this is who we are. We are a caring, loving and protecting community.”
Sanctuary churches are nothing new. The sanctuary movement was conceived during the 1980s, when churches took in refugees from Central America fleeing violence in their country.
Callahan said there’s no specific process to follow in order to become a sanctuary church. He and other members, such as Lisa Kremer, are trying to learn more about what they can do to help immigrants through ISAIAH, a faith-based coalition of racial and social justice advocates.
Callahan said the church wants to be prepared if Trump follows through on his promises of deportation. He recalled when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents came to Worthington in 2006, when hundreds of undocumented workers were arrested at the facility then known as Swift (now JBS). The raid targeted various Swift locations around the country, and nearly 1,300 people were apprehended. According to the Center for Immigration studies, it was the largest immigration enforcement action in U.S. history.
“Kids went home and parents weren’t there,” he said. “It was really terrible, and many people came to the church here but nobody knew what was happening.”
Callahan said he wants people to know that St. Mary’s is a safe heaven for those in danger of facing deportation.
“It’s for people to know that this is a place to come,” Callahan said. “If there is ever a raid again, we are here; our doors are open for people.”
Kremer works closely with immigrant families as the project coordinator of Familias Juntas, an organization that helps children meet for the first time with their families in their country of origin. She said many immigrant families who could be in danger of deportation have been living in Worthington for a very long time.
“A lot of families that we are talking about didn’t come yesterday,” Kremer said. “They have been here for 15 to 20 years.”
Kremer said she thinks there are a lot of people who are misinformed about immigrants. She explained that there is a belief that many immigrants are not willing to go through the process of legalization.
“The vast majority of the people who are undocumented here don’t have a path of legitimacy in this country,” she said.
She added that she thinks if mass separation ever happens in Worthington, the consequences will have a negative impact on the wellness of the community.
“What Worthington the community has to consider is, what happens if our immigrants suddenly feel threatened and start to leave on their own or they started to be deported, because this community is very dependent in our immigrants,” Kremer said.
Kremer, who has been fighting to keep families together for many years, is worried about children born in the United States with parents not legally in the country.
“One thing that is really hard for us … these are our kids, they are not foreign,” Kremer said. “Why should these kids be afraid? What kind of country do we live in when our kids are afraid that their families are going to be ripped apart?”
Callahan has been part of St. Mary’s for six years and said he has been able to know the immigrant community fairly well, with almost 1,000 people attending worship.
“The majority of our people here are not felons, they are hard-working individuals,” he said. “We know most of our people maybe not by name, but we know who they are, the ones who will be coming.”
Callahan said having such a diverse community is a blessing, and that the church is willing to stand up for them.
“In this parish we are so blessed to have such a diverse immigrant community with folks from Africa, Asia and everything,” he said. “It’s really amazing to see the diversity, and especially for our children - they are so blessed to live in an environment like this.”