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.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

In the autumn of 1939, Chiune Sugihara was sent to Lithuania to open the first Japanese consulate there. His job was to keep tabs on and gather information about Japan's ally, Germany. Meanwhile, in neighboring Poland, Nazi tanks had already begun to roll in, causing Jewish refugees to flee into the small country.

When the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania in June of 1940, scores of Jews flooded the Japanese consulate, seeking transit visas to be able to escape to a safety through Japan. Overwhelmed by the requests, Sugihara reached out to the foreign ministry in Tokyo for guidance and was told that no one without proper paperwork should be issued a visa—a limitation that would have ruled out nearly all of the refugees seeking his help.

Sugihara faced a life-changing choice. He could obey the government and leave the Jews in Lithuania to their fate, or he could disobey orders and face disgrace and the loss of his job, if not more severe punishments from his superiors.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Sugihara was fond of saying, "I may have to disobey my government, but if I don't, I would be disobeying God." Sugihara decided it was worth it to risk his livelihood and good standing with the Japanese government to give the Jews at his doorstep a fighting chance, so he started issuing Japanese transit visas to any refugee who needed one, regardless of their eligibility.

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