Local church shelters immigrants seeking asylum

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- An October immigration bust in Buffalo that resulted in 25 arrests was a sign for Pastor Justo Gonzalez that he needed to do something.

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“It frustrated me and angered me as a Latino. It frustrated and angered me as a man of faith. And it frustrated and angered me as an American,” the head of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s told News 4.

According to ICE, around 11,000 undocumented people with no criminal records have been detained since President Trump took office; that’s twice as many as last year.

Following the immigration bust in October, the church board at Pilgrim-St. Luke’s voted. Unanimously, they decided to join the 800 other houses of worship around the country and become a sanctuary.

“People have come to us from California, Texas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland,” Pastor Gonzalez said.

The church has also harbored undocumented immigrant families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, among others.

Jean McNamara is a life-long member of the church. In fact, her grandparents founded the church in the 19th century.

McNamara recalls the pastor during WWII harboring conscientious objectors, despite having served as a chaplain in WWI.

Protecting the vulnerable is part of the church’s identity, she told News 4.

Roberta Farkas-Huezo is a new member. She and her husband, who is from El Salvador, wanted a place they both could feel welcome.

“I feel like somebody who is following Jesus’ steps, and if that makes me an activist than that is a badge that I’m proud to proclaim,” she said.

“I do feel like an activist, in the best way possible. Just doing what needs to be done,” said Jane Lytle, longtime church member and teacher.

The immigrant families sleep on cots in the basement and have access to the church’s food pantry.

Gonzalez is currently raising money to install working showers and laundry facilities.

“We have helped 29 adults and 11 children obtain lawful entry in Canada using the asylum process,” Gonzalez said.

Those seeking asylum in Canada must prove they face danger or persecution in their home country.

In addition to letters of thanks and support, the church has also received hate mail from people who don’t agree with the action it’s taking.

“I would challenge them to just take a step back,” said Deacon Danielle Johnson.

“Reflect just on the humanistic part of it, and really think about whether or not their own real core values align with those policies,” she said.

Legally speaking, the church is taking a risk.

ICE has the authority to arrest an undocumented individual from a church. However, it’s been a longstanding practice that ICE generally avoids “sensitive places” like places of worship, hospitals, and schools.

“If ICE or Border Patrol arrives here, we will say welcome. We will not let them in, but they have the right to come in if they choose to,” Gonzalez said.

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