by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, June 2018) The congregation of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ on West 14th Street in the Tremont neighborhood decided in a unanimous vote to make their church a sanctuary, allowing the church to protect a guest from being deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Eulogio Hernandez Box, a father of four from Central Ohio, is the first person to be provided sanctuary in the church. Pilgrim Church Pastor, Rev. Kelly Burd says that Hernandez Box is currently living in the church while awaiting a stay of deportation so he can return to his family and his parish. Hernandez Box has a private room in the church that is close to a bathroom and shower. Volunteers from the congregation will help provide groceries and laundry services during his stay.
Burd noted that the congregation’s predecessors had built Pilgrim Church in the late 1800s to accommodate immigrants in what is today the Tremont neighborhood. She also cited “the current political climate demands churches provide sanctuary,” as her decision to become a sanctuary church, stating that the church is in line with “the values and teachings of the gospel.”
Speaking via a translator to a crowd gathered for a press conference at the church on May 1, Hernandez Box said he came to the United States from Guatemala 17-years-ago with his wife. He said they decided they couldn’t raise their children in Guatemala because of the difficulties there. Hernandez Box’s four children are all American citizens. In addition to taking care of his own family, he also assists with taking care of his eight-year-old nephew, whose mother, Hernandez Box’s sister, died of cancer. His sister’s oldest child, a DACA recipient, is taking care of three additional siblings.
Burd said in previous years, Hernandez Box had been granted a stay of deportation when he regularly reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). However, because of a new executive order issued by the Trump administration, he now fears he would be put into deportation if he reported to immigration. Hernandez Box appealed to the government and the courts “to give me an opportunity in this country,” but decided not to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement because he did not want to be separated from his family. “I do not want them to grow up without their father,” he said, speaking of his children. “I’m asking authorities to have mercy on me,” said Hernandez Box. “Those of you who are moms and dads understand how difficult it would be to be separated from your children.”
Burd noted that Pope Francis had urged compassion for immigrants. She expressed her gratitude that Pilgrim Church was not alone in offering refuge to immigrants facing deportation, as Forest Hill Presbyterian in Cleveland Heights, St. Andrew Episcopal Church in Mentor and First Church of Oberlin, are also providing sanctuary.
Forest Hills’ Pastor, Rev. John Lentz talked of the biblical directive to “welcome strangers” and invited to “people of faith” to stand with the sanctuary churches.