Miriam Vargas

The United States has a history of churches offering sanctuary to people without papers.

In the early 1980’s, American churches provided safe haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict.Forty years later, the sanctuary movement is responding to federal immigration policies that makes obtaining asylum difficult, if not impossible.

In the past two years, organized religions are offering their buildings as sanctuaries for people without papers who are under threat of deportation and separation from their children. This is not a new’s been happening for decades for various reasons.

A local case is Miriam Vargas, who along with her two young daughters, has been living at the First English Lutheran Church near downtown Columbus, Ohio since July 2018. There are several other denominations that offer similar types of sanctuary for people without papers. Edith Espinal has been fighting deportation in sanctuary at the Columbus Mennonite Church for two years and is currently on a hunger strike, waiting for a visit from Senator Sherrod Brown, as we go to press.

The Just North United Church of Christ also provides resources and helps support immigrants in need –  most recently a Honduran family who fled gang violence in their country, walking 90 days through Mexico to enter the United States for refuge. Last year, the Just North Church provided sanctuary for a Mexican woman until she was allowed to leave after being granted a U-Visa from the government. Sadly, she was only offered the visa because she had been a victim of crime in the U.S.

The reason sanctuary in a church can work is because the law protects the person being harbored, and there are local people who are sympathetic and eager to find ways to protect an asylum seeker.

Ministers like Pastor Sally Padgett, the minister at First English Lutheran Church, potentially risks visits by authorities such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for harboring a person without papers.

The cost of sanctuary not only impacts the victim of immigration abuse emotionally, financially and psychologically – but also comes at a price for the congregation, people connected to all the parties involved and the neighborhood. 

Miriam’s Story

At the age of 21 in 2005, Miriam left her homeland of Honduras to escape extreme poverty, extortion and violence from a network of gangs overtaking the country.

Her journey was slow, traveling by public transportation and sometimes walking for days through Guatemala and Mexico. Upon utilizing a network of “coyotes” (paid guides), she arrived in the US connecting with custom authorities to make a claim of asylum.

At that point she was put on a bus to Columbus, Ohio, where she set up housekeeping with the address she gave immigration upon entry into the US.

Eventually, under the scrutiny of the US Department of Homeland Security she was ordered to leave her home of 13 years, with or without her children. Her uncharted future led to her decision to accept the offer of sanctuary at the First English Lutheran Church.

Before Miriam made the decision to go into sanctuary in order to stay with her young daughters, she was a productive citizen living in a neighborhood where her children went to school every day and she went to work.

She filed a United States IRS tax return every year. She paid her rent on time, was an active consumer and lived the life of a productive American citizen.

The True Cost of Sanctuary

Churches that take the position of offering sanctuary can find their congregation under scrutiny by the church hierarchy and by the community that surrounds the church building.

Peers question motives and are confused by the taking up of the perceived quixotical project of battling windmills,uncertainty and a possible unwinnable outcome.

Emotional costs to Miriam, the church and volunteers are spread widely among all aspects of daily life.

Miriam can’t visit her children at school. She is dependent on others for transportation for her children, grocery shopping, medical and dental visits. Rushing a child to the emergency room is not an option.

ICE detention is always a tap on the shoulder away.

People involved in providing sanctuary often hear, “I don’t think about things that I have no control over,” but there are things that can make a difference in the lives of people without papers.  

There is a long history of ordinary people pushing for positive change to overcome an instituted wrong.

In the case of sanctuary, the wrong is that legitimate seekers of asylum deserve US sanctuary and should not be separated from their children.

Here’s how you can help: On December 13, 2019 at 7 pm, join Miriam at the First English Lutheran Church, 1015 East Main Street, Columbus, to celebrate the Christmas season with readings and song.  For more information on how to contribute to the $18,000 annual costs to house the Vargas family or to participate in the event contact Read more about Miriam Vargas.

Question posed to First English Lutheran Church Pastor, Sally Padgett:

Pastor Sally and her congregation are providing sanctuary for Miriam Vargas in Columbus, Ohio.

How has Miriam being in your church’s sanctuary affected you?

The answer to that question has a whole lot of emotion attached to it, and after 500 plus days I don’t know if I can even remember what it was like at First English before Miriam and her girls took up residence at the church.

I have certainly been busier since Miriam moved in. I like to keep this issue in front of people and the only way to do that is to continue to engage them through preaching, and teaching – lifting up what is going on with Miriam.

I love seeing the girls growing and changing, but as much as I enjoy seeing their smiling faces, my being able to see those means that Miriam is still not able to freely live her life. She is still stuck at the church and still has her life on hold. 

Another struggle is financial. While so far God has provided and people have generously given, the amounts being given has slowed down as the time goes on. 

First English does not have unlimited funds – in fact it is the opposite. We, as a church, are on a very tight budget as most of the folks who attend First English live way below the poverty line. I would be lying to say I don’t think about what happens as time goes on and people stop or slow down on giving.  Making sure Miriam is taken care of adds another layer of financial pressure, but again, I would never want her to think she is a burden or that we ever regret our decision to take her into sanctuary. 

The church will find a way to support her as long as sanctuary is needed. 

Through sanctuary I have also met many wonderful people I may have never met otherwise, people who give of their time and money for this important cause. 

However, I have also met people who have surprised me by their failure to stand up for this issue, who have refused to partner and instead selfishly think only of themselves and what benefits them. 

I have struggled with Christians leaders who feel they need to walk a line to keep everyone happy, despite the Biblical mandate on this issue.

I think about what happens if President Trump is elected for another four years. 

I wonder if we will ever get to a point as a nation where taking a stand on this issue will have more dire consequences for those who support Miriam. These are some of the issues I think about and some of the complexity of emotion I was talking about.

Having Miriam in sanctuary is a hardship and joy all at the same time.

I have seen the best and worst of human nature, but I also recognize so much of this is out of my control so I do what I can and turn the rest over to God.

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