MAPLEWOOD • Alex Garcia is not a religious man, but he thanks God for the brick church on the corner of Bellevue and Bruno avenues.
It has been his home for the past four months, a sanctuary from deportation. He lives in a makeshift apartment in the basement, more than 150 miles from his wife and five children in Poplar Bluff, Mo.
Garcia came to the United States from Honduras 13 years ago, looking for work and for an escape from an unstable country. He found a job, then love, and began building a family and a steady income working construction.
A few years back, he caught the attention of the federal agency charged with enforcing immigration laws. Twice, he got a one-year reprieve to stay in the country. But last summer, under a new administration, his third request was denied. He was told in September to report to an office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE. He was being sent back to the country he fled.
Instead, he showed up at the doorstep of Christ Church United Church of Christ, a congregation that “welcomes all. No exceptions.”
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The platform of acceptance the church has stood proudly on for decades would be put to the test like never before. With the arrival of Garcia, the church was wading into murky legal waters and an uncertainty of exactly what toll it would take on the small group of worshippers.
After President Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, the church’s peace and justice committee began meeting to discuss ways to help vulnerable populations and decided to focus on immigrants. The parishioners started small with the question: “How can we make St. Louis more welcoming?”
But that led to a harder question, said Pastor Rebecca Turner.
“If someone presents for sanctuary, will we take them into the building to protect them from deportation?”
Turner began using the pulpit to educate the congregation on immigration challenges and what was at stake for those trying to stay in the country lawfully. One Sunday morning in September, she turned to the Book of Matthew.
“Jesus says that when someone comes to us in need, we are to treat him as Jesus himself,” Turner said in explaining the Scripture. “If we don’t provide, it’s, in essence, turning Jesus away.”
The next day, she received a call from a social justice agency that works with undocumented Latin Americans.
There is a man who is facing deportation. He needs a place to stay.
A sanctuary protecting him from federal officials.
“There was simply no way we could not say yes,” Turner said. “We’ve got Jesus knocking at the door.”
Protected, not hidden
Two Sundays ago, Garcia, 36, sat in a pew near the front, his wife, Carly, by his side. Their five children were a hive of activity around them. The morning service was about to begin.
Every other weekend or so, Carly loads up the kids, ages 3 to 11, in her SUV for a trip to see Dad. It’s a 2½-hour drive to St. Louis. It’s not easy, she said, but it’s better than the alternative — Alex more than 1,500 miles away, in Central America.
The little ones are too young to realize why Dad is no longer at home.
“They just think he is at work,” Carly, 30, said.
It’s a blended family. Alex had two children when he met Carly; she had one. Together, they had two more. Alex landed in the small Bootheel area town by accident. His initial destination into the U.S. was Houston, but he said he stayed on the train and kept going. He’s not sure why.
It was raining when he got off the train in 2004. He saw two men working on a garage and stopped in for shelter. They took him to a Mexican restaurant so he could talk to someone who spoke Spanish. That led to a job on the spot, which he held for seven years before moving into construction, working for Carly’s father.
Carly has lived in Poplar Bluff since she was a young girl, her family moving from a Chicago suburb when she was 2. In 2007, the single mom went out with friends to a bar. She met Alex. A month or so later they were dating. They were married on May 14, 2010.
Alex first tried to cross into the U.S. in 2000 when he was 19. He was caught by Border Patrol agents and issued an order of removal. Four years later, he tried again, this time successfully. He remained under the radar of immigration officials until 2015. That’s when Alex accompanied his sister to an immigration check-in appointment at an ICE office in Kansas City. After questioning him, investigators linked Garcia to the 2000 deportation order, which was still in effect.
Alex was detained for a few weeks before a lawyer with the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project, or MICA, successfully applied for a stay of removal, good for one year. A second stay was offered the following year. But last summer, the extension to stay in the country was denied. He was told to report Sept. 21 at an ICE office to be deported.
With Alex’s legal options exhausted, immigrant rights groups led by St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America talked with the Garcias about Alex seeking sanctuary. It was something with which they were unfamiliar.
Sara John, with IFCLA, explained to the couple that moving Alex into a house of worship would keep him from being sent back to Honduras.
“I talked to Carly and told her there is a space where laws fall short and values pick up the slack,” John said. “Carly was in tears. She said: ‘I can’t lose him. I’ll do whatever it takes.’”
Carly and Alex use the WhatsApp instant messaging service to video chat, allowing Alex to see the kids grow up in the home he can no longer live in. Carly works full time in the human resources department of a health care company but without Alex’s income, paying the bills is tough, she said. She has turned to public assistance, including food stamps.
Carly’s mother takes care of the kids when they are not in school and her father offers financial and emotional support. When Carly feels like she is going to fall apart, she calls Alex.
“Alex is my world. He is definitely my best friend. He made me a better person and realize that everyone deserves a second change, deserves kindness,” Carly said.
Alex bides his time doing odd jobs such as painting classrooms and caulking windows.
“It feels so safe and good here,” Alex said. “I’m waiting for hope from here.”
He is confined to the church and has been instructed not to answer the door. There is always someone in the church in the event law enforcement comes.
“I’m not going to lie. I’m terrified,” Carly said. “I’m afraid they will take Alex away and he will be gone for many years and not see his children grow up.”
In 2011, ICE enacted a policy designating “sensitive locations” where officials would not likely enforce immigration laws. The locations include churches, schools and hospitals. But the agency makes it clear no place is a complete haven.
“Pursuant to ICE policy, enforcement actions are not to occur at or be focused on sensitive locations such as schools, places of worship unless: exigent circumstances exist; other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location; or prior approval is obtained from a designated supervisory official,” according to the agency’s website.
Those who help undocumented immigrants find refuge say part of the process is making it clear to ICE that a person has sought sanctuary.
“We file documents with ICE, put them on notice that this is where he lives,” John said.
“We’re not harboring, hiding anyone,” said Turner, the pastor. “He is being protected by the church.”
Alex is one of 36 immigrants living in a place of worship in the U.S., according to a report issued last week by Church World Service, an international agency working with refugees and immigrants.
The places of worship, which include churches, synagogues and mosques, are in 26 cities. Christ Church in Maplewood is the only one serving as a sanctuary in Missouri. However, more than 1,100 places of worship are now listed by Church World Service as willing participants in the sanctuary movement.
Turner said the community has been overwhelmingly supportive, with donations of food and money. Maplewood Mayor Barry Greenberg stopped by the church recently with an extra meal from a lunch held at his architecture firm. He was introduced to Alex.
“The intent was to let him know the city is not going to take it upon itself to seek out immigrants and hand them over to ICE,” Greenberg said. He supports the effort of the church.
“They are trying to do the right thing and I think the church has been an outstanding member of the community. They are just trying to practice their beliefs.”
Maplewood Police Chief Stephen Kruse said no one has complained about an undocumented immigrant taking refuge in his small town.
“The police department has not received any concerns,” Kruse said. “However, if Immigration and Customs Enforcement asks for our assistance, we are required to provide it.”
‘The new normal’
“Silencing the Monsters” was the title of Turner’s sermon two Sundays ago.
“Monsters cannot be addressed if we don’t bring them out into the light of day,” Turner said. “We can’t deal with hidden monsters.”
“Let’s take a look at that ugliness,” she continued. “That’s where the solution will be found. We’ve been way too polite with our monsters. We can tell them we are ready for something to change because living with them just doesn’t work anymore.”
Her remarks were rooted in Scripture. Driving out the evil spirits that haunt us. Cripple us. Keep us down.
But Alex and Carly saw their fight in Turner’s words.
“Her sermons help every time. There is always a connection, whether it’s on purpose. There is always some kind of connection because of what is happening right now.”
Turner said Alex does not like to be idle, always asking for ways to help around the church. He often starts projects without asking, including cleaning out a deep fryer.
“We don’t in any way want to exploit his talents but he has been a tremendous blessing,” Turner said. “What he has given us goes well beyond paint jobs and repair work.”
The congregation is seeing a national issue play out before them, learning firsthand the toll it takes on a young family, she said.
Early on, the 110-member church was concerned about how long it would be hosting Alex.
“Not in limits to hospitality but how much it will require of us,” Turner said. “Now, that same question is meant in a different way. Every bit of it is out of concern for the family. How long do they have to do this?”
That is the unknown.
“Alex is a really good man and does not deserve the injustice that he is receiving from our government, regardless if he entered illegally or not,” Carly said. “He has been a good asset to our community, a loving father and husband.”
Social justice advocates are concerned that Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration including ending protections of “Dreamers” — those who came into the U.S. illegally as children — and his push to build a wall along the Mexico border puts the sanctuary movement in jeopardy.
“To date, the President has signed seven executive orders related to immigration and has terminated and limited protections that have been granted to undocumented immigrants under previous administrations,” Church World Service said in its “Sanctuary in the Age of Trump” report, released last month.
“As the U.S. struggles with an uncertain political pathway under the leadership of a president whose platform is grounded in an anti-immigrant agenda, sanctuary is needed more than ever.”
An unclear future stymies optimism. But the Garcias said they have to push on. It’s their only option.
“This is the new normal, for now,” Carly said. “We’re hoping policies are going to change. I’m not going to give up until they do.”