Coping with Crisis: How Three People Living in Sanctuary Passed the Time

Sarah Weiner | May 2021

Of the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, some faced with deportation orders from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decide to step into the millennia-long tradition of sanctuary and take refuge in churches. Sanctuary seekers trapped in the same buildings for months and years on end due to the dysfunction and violence of the U.S. immigration system find various ways to cope with their confinement. They live within the confines of the property for years, supported by communities in and out of the church. Finding ways to pass the time while alone in sanctuary is critical for coping with boredom, isolation, and, especially, the mental and emotional consequences of trauma. Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, Lucio Perez, and Liliana Sanchez de Saldivar, three immigrants formerly living in sanctuary, show us that, even while living in carceral conditions, their actions honor the reciprocity of practicing sanctuary and deeply influence the communities around them.


Dr. Barbara Sostaita’s article “Escape-Bound: Juana Luz Tobar Ortega’s Fugitive Poetics” was the inspiration for this column, so it seems only fitting to start with Ortega’s experience in sanctuary. Ortega is from Guatemala and has lived in the U.S. for over thirty years. After being targeted for deportation by the Trump administration, she took sanctuary in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina in the spring of 2017—she left this spring. Sostaita details Ortega’s day-to-day activities, which she became familiar with from paying Ortega weekly visits during her time in sanctuary. Ortega uses old jeans to create purses and yoga mat bags that are sold locally, alters clothing, cooks papusas for people in the community, and tends to her garden with flowers and fruits. From within the church, she cultivated new life and reached the lives of those around her by reviving, creating, and giving. Very literally, Ortega transforms the old, broken, and supposedly useless, into something new and purposeful to share with her community.


Overlapping with Ortega’s time in sanctuary, Lucio Perez lived in sanctuary at First Church Amherst, a Congregational church Amherst, Massachusetts. Perez, also a Guatemalan immigrant who has lived in the U.S. for several decades, left just this spring as well. He occupied much of his time by teaching Spanish from inside the church. The lessons served as an important way to pass the time, meet new people, share knowledge, and experience with the community while earning remuneration through donations. Students left their lessons with skills that stay with them long after Perez left sanctuary, demonstrating his lasting generosity and inevitable impact on his community.


Perez and Ortega both took sanctuary in the face of Trump’s aggressive deportation policies, but the last example draws from nearly a decade earlier. Liliana Sanchez de Saldivar lived in sanctuary during the late 2000s, just as the New Sanctuary Movement launched. Sanchez de Saldivar, a Mexican immigrant who had been living in the U.S. for many years, entered sanctuary at the United Church of Christ in Simi Valley, California in the summer of 2007 with her young son Pablito. While in sanctuary—in addition to advocating for the Sanctuary Movement and immigrants’ rights—her primary focus was taking care of Pablito, who was not even a year old upon entering sanctuary. Although Ortega and Perez are parents as well, the young age of Sanchez de Saldivar’s son reminds us that the task of motherhood does not wait. Sanchez de Saldivar also has two other children who did not live in sanctuary with her, but she continued to care for them while living on the church’s property. Through raising her children as members of the community and mothering her baby while in the physical and emotional confines of sanctuary, Sanchez de Saldivar continued to bring life into the world and give to her community.

Recognizing the actions of Ortega, Perez, and Sanchez de Saldivar provides a glimpse into what living in sanctuary means for the people who actually undertake it. I know that ascertaining the generosity, selflessness, and creativity of these three particular sanctuary seekers forced me to reevaluate my understanding of taking sanctuary. Albeit perhaps romanticized, a new perspective on sanctuary based on lived experiences is critical to keeping the practice in a state of reimagination and, therefore, alive, well, and effective. Sanctuary remains an absolutely carceral, isolating, and harrowing experience but, in this same way, demands connecting with, extending out to, and breathing life into one’s shifting surroundings in new ways.