They fled from murder in El Salvador and were surprised by sanctuary in a U.S. community.

In June 2010, 14 people were murdered on the same day on public buses in El Salvador.

It is from that frightening environment that 19-year-old Araceli Velasquez fled to the United States.

"El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in the world, and miscarriage is punishable by 30 years in prison," according to the American Friends Service Committee petition made on behalf of Velasquez. Finding safety was imperative.


But when Velasquez arrived at the United States border, she was detained.

"And then in detention, I learned I could apply for asylum because of the violence I was fleeing, so that's what I did," Velasquez said. She was denied asylum but stayed in the U.S. out of concern for her safety.

It wasn't until members of Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah in Denver got involved that Velasquez was able to live safely in the United States. The two congregations, along with the larger faith community, decided to offer Velasquez's family sanctuary among their own.

For Velasquez, sanctuary "means that I don't have to be fearful that I'll be separated from my family and that I can continue to fight my deportation in order to keep my family together."

In the United States, faith communities are able to provide sanctuary for immigrants because of a 2011 memo.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) document ensures "enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools and churches." It's not a foolproof solution — the Trump administration so far has adhered to the policy but has been known to post ICE agents near sensitive locations. But for the most part, it provides much needed safety to vulnerable community members.

Steve Holz-Russell, coordinator of the sanctuary task force, recalled starting the conversation practically. "Compared to other things we've done as a church, [deciding to become a sanctuary site] went lightning fast," Holz-Russell said. The church took a vote in June 2017, and more than 80% of the congregation favored sanctuary.

Araceli Velasquez and her son, Christopher, attend a welcoming ceremony at Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah. Photo courtesy of American Friends Service Committee.

There's a history of faith communities sheltering immigrants that reaches back centuries.

Faith leaders and activists helped people immigrate from El Salvador and Guatemala to the U.S. to flee the political violence the U.S. initially refused to recognize as human rights violations. Dating much further back, the tradition of sanctuary can be found in the Hebrew Bible and the Torah, though with a different application.

Today, claiming sanctuary in a faith community means the individual or family and the faith community decide to have a relationship that includes providing the person or people in sanctuary a place to live.

While there is precedent for claiming and providing sanctuary, there is no law keeping ICE agents from entering faith communities to carry out deportation actions. Thus, providing sanctuary is considered an act of civil disobedience.

Velasquez and her family moved in shortly after her interview with the church and temple.

The apartment where the family would be living wasn't complete right away. For about five weeks, they stayed in the youth room until remodeling was finished.

The two faith communities have worked together to make Velasquez and her family comfortable and cared for. Park Hill United Methodist Church's lead pastor, Rev. Nathan Adams, described the ongoing work as very pragmatic. Community members, he said, have been asking themselves, "What needs to get done, and who can do it?"

Temple Micah Rabbi Adam Morris agrees. From his perspective, the two faith communities have found that "we're doing good, and we're pursuing justice and compassion, but the other great part has been … deepening our relationship."

From left: Jorge Jr. Jorge, Kevin, Araceli, and Christopher. Photo courtesy of Ric Urrutia.

One unforeseen outcome of housing Velasquez in sanctuary? The upswell of support from the broader community.

More than 90 people regularly give their time as either door monitors or overnight volunteers. They have come not just from the faith community but also from the broader neighborhood and throughout Denver.

ICE is known for conducting raids early in the morning or late at night. Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah have protocols in place should agents show up at their building.

"We had a scare where ICE went to Jorge's place of work," said Rev. Angie Kotzmoyer, an associate pastor. Holz-Russell received the call from Velasquez saying she thought ICE was on their way.

Recalling that frightening day, Holz-Russell said, "I called everybody," and Adams added, "And everybody came."

Sanctuary has given Velasquez the ability to keep her family together. It has also shown her that change is possible.

"I really believe that if more churches had the experience that Temple Micah, Park Hill [UMC], and I have had, where we learn to trust one another and share with one another deeply, that that would change the politics and the laws that we have," she said.

Park Hill United Methodist Church and its board are considering sponsoring legislation around shifts in immigration policy as well as declaring support for those living in sanctuary in Colorado. Adams knows that providing sanctuary and considering legislation is just the beginning.

"We see a neighbor in Araceli and her family that are in need," he said. "I think God is providing volunteers, people who are interested and care about this, to make it possible. So, we gotta do it. We gotta put our faith into action."

Ultimately, the hopes of Velasquez and Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah are the same: that she and her family will be able to return to their own home.

Furthermore, Adams said, "we really want to live in a place where the idea of sanctuary isn't even needed."

To learn more, visit www.sanctuary-phumc-micah.com.

This story originally appeared on Greater Park Hill News and is reprinted here with permission.

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