Jan. 14, 2019.

By Mary Lareau*.

Rosa Gutierrez Lopez, center, with Cedar Lane UU Church ministers, Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, right, and Rev. Katie Romano Griffin, left.

Many of you have seen the news accounts of the young Salvadoran mother who went into sanctuary at Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda. Rosa’s story, and that of the congregation that has become her home, are inspirational and awe-inspiring.

Rosa’s story is like thousands of others who fled rampant corruption and gang and domestic violence in the Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Thirteen years ago, men in Rosa’s town harassed her daily, stalking her at home and threatening her with knives. With no protection from family or friends, she bravely set off on foot and by bus across Guatemala and Mexico. At one point the walking caused severe foot injuries, leading her to stop and work as an indentured servant in Mexico. When she finally reached the U.S. border in December 2005, she sought asylum and was given papers written in English telling her to report to immigration court a month later. She did not understand the papers and knew no one to translate for her. When she did not report to court, a deportation order was issued in absentia in January 2006.

For the next 8 years, Rosa lived, worked and raised her family in Fredericksburg, VA. Her three young children range in age from 11 to 6, with the youngest, John, needing special care for Down syndrome and several chronic medical conditions. In 2014, after being harassed by local police, Rosa discovered the long-standing deportation order. Since then she religiously attended her twice-yearly Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-ins until immigration enforcement policies changed in 2017 and she had to check in every month. Last November ICE told Rosa she must buy a plane ticket and deport herself to El Salvador on Dec. 10, 2018.

Rosa faced a decision most of us couldn’t fathom – permanently leave her children or take them with her to the dangers of El Salvador where John could not receive proper medical care. Caring community members – including two UUs! – suggested she contact people in NOVA connected to the DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network (SCN) about seeking sanctuary in a faith community (UUCF and Cedar Lane UU are members of the SCN).

This is where the extraordinary clergy, staff and members of Cedar Lane enter the story. More than a year ago, after Cedar Lane UU joined the SCN, the members voted to become a physical sanctuary should that need arise. They converted space on campus into an apartment, trained dozens of people who signed up to volunteer and … waited.

When Rosa sought sanctuary a year later, Cedar Lane congregants had less than 48 hours’ notice to open their doors and hearts to the newest member of their faith community. At Cedar Lane, the love for and solidarity with Rosa are palpable. For the congregation, providing sanctuary is an act of faithful witness. As Senior Minister Rev. Abhi Janamanchi says, “This is the way we live into our values and convictions. We are engaging in faithful resistance to unjust laws and inhumane practices.”

Rosa will remain in sanctuary at Cedar Lane as she waits for her asylum case to be re-opened. In the last month, Rosa has given countless interviews to the press, met with scores of volunteers and is desperately missing her children. While she sees them most weekends and has the company of at least one volunteer at all times, being in sanctuary is extremely isolating and lonely. It takes great courage to look out for the long-term best interests of your children while foregoing your own short-term well-being.

As you can imagine, holding Rosa safe, comfortable and embraced in love requires funding and scores of volunteers. And Cedar Lane cannot do all of this alone. A fund has been established to help the congregation meet the financial demands of sanctuary, and Cedar Lane is seeking our help. I hope you will join me in making a tax-deductible donation to this fund. There are two ways to do that:

  • Donate by credit card online on the Cedar Lane UU website. Designate “Sanctuary Support” as the fund for your contribution.
  • Mail a check to Cedar Lane UU. Designate “Sanctuary Support” on the memo line. Mail to: Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, Attn: Olivia James, Office Manager, 9601 Cedar Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814.

In terms of volunteer support, Cedar Lane UU has reached out to other congregations in Montgomery County to pitch in. When they need to reach out for volunteers beyond those borders, UUCF will make our congregants aware of how they can help.

*Mary Lareau is the volunteer leader of the Northern Virginia cluster of the DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network and has worked closely with Rosa’s sanctuary team. Mary is also UUCF’s director of communications and has been a UUCF member for 17 years.