Letters: Seeking Sanctuary

We are all in this country because our ancestors came from somewhere.

Some came as stowaways, some came with first-class tickets. Some came in chains, some of their own volition. Virtually everyone in this country, however, has roots somewhere else.

At its best, America has been a beacon of liberty, a refuge for people seeking freedom; at our worst, we have been ourselves a source of oppression.

In this season, heading toward the holidays of Easter and Passover, it is time for us to recommit ourselves to the better angels of our nature.

It is time that we, as a community and as a nation, recommit ourselves to being a sanctuary for those who come to America seeking better lives.

A sanctuary is a powerful, concrete symbol of God’s constant presence among people. God dwells with people, whoever they are, whatever they have done. Divine love is unconditional. No matter who you are and what you have done, God does not abandon you, and neither should those of us who consider ourselves to be servants of the Holy.

Our sacred writings tell us again and again that we are to care for those in need. The Book of Matthew (25:35) teaches in the name of Jesus, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

In the Book of Leviticus (19:33) we are taught, “If a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger that sojourns with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I am the Lord your God.”

Informed by the teachings of our traditions and our own moral consciousness, we call upon the Beacon City Council to pass a robust sanctuary city resolution.

As people of faith and conscience, we pledge to resist any federal policies to target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants and discriminate against marginalized communities. We will work to open up our communities as sanctuary spaces for those targeted by hate, and work alongside our friends, families and neighbors to ensure the dignity and human rights of all people.

We call on all people of conscience — whether our families have been here long enough that we are reckoned as insiders, or whether we just arrived — to welcome those seeking refuge because we, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt, and this promised land, these United States, let us in.

Pastor Edward Benson, New Vision Church of Deliverance, Fishkill
Pastor Ben Larson-Wolbrink, First Presbyterian Church of Beacon
Pastor Ricardo Pacheco, Tabernacle of Christ, Beacon
Rev. Lieta Singleton, St. James AME Zion Church, Beacon
Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek, Beacon Hebrew Alliance

Claudio Vele was one of the first people we met when we arrived in Garrison 11 years ago. He worked for a local stonemason. He was undocumented. Claudio lived in Peekskill in a small apartment, where he also worked as a tailor on inclement days and during the worst of the winter. Claudio was Ecuadorian. He had come to the U.S. to earn money for his family 10 years before we met him. His goal was to ensure that his children were educated to the highest level they could achieve. During the time we knew Claudio, all of them went to university, completing advanced degrees in engineering and software development.

When we met Claudio he spoke little English, but my wife and I spoke Spanish, so we engaged in a daily dialogue with him as he built the walls and patios we had contracted through his employer. He quickly became more of a friend than an employee. Convinced that he could make more money as an independent contractor, we suggested he strike out on his own and made calls to our friends, encouraging them to use his outstanding masonry skills to rebuild their century-old stone walls. One client led to the next and before long his hourly rate rose from $10 an hour to $25 and, for many of his clients, lunch was a part of the bargain. There are few streets in Garrison that have not been touched by the hand of this craftsman.

As the years passed, Claudio went from being a friend to a part of the family, joining us for Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations. He would arrive at our house in a newly tailored suit and would show us pictures of his family and the house that his wife was building with his hard-earned money. It was during these moments that we began to encourage him to return to his family in Ecuador. Each year he would respond “Si, el año que viene” (next year), but that year would come and go and he would stay.

In retrospect, I realize that he was afraid to go home; he had become more American than Ecuadorean, his English honed from daily use. His life was here along the Hudson; he was not only geographically but culturally distant from the city of his birth after almost 20 years away.

Finally, Claudio relented. He obtained an Ecuadorean passport, packed his bag and returned to Cuenca, a small city high in the Andes. When he arrived “home” he quickly discovered that his family had moved on during those years, depending on him for money but not love. His wife rejected him and his children had learned to live without him. He called us pleading to find a way for him to return. We contacted a lawyer who convinced us of the impossibility of this given his history as an undocumented citizen.

Over time, Claudio accepted his plight and retreated to a small farm outside the city, living alone. Two years after his return, he died of pneumonia at age 58 and was not found for many days.

Sanctuary is not a city or a state. It is a place in the heart. We must decide if our hearts are open or shuttered. Are we willing to see each person before us, without regard to the things that make us different, with generosity and compassion? Abraham Lincoln’s call to “the better angels of our nature” on the eve of civil war resonates here and now with equal provocation and urgency.

Eric Stark, Garrison


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