Pastor Cleve May leads a group in prayer at CityWell United Methodist on Wednesday before announcing the church will offer protective sanctuary to Samuel Oliver-Bruno, center left, who is facing deportation.
Samuel Oliver-Bruno has been living at Durham's CityWell United Methodist Church since Sunday.
On Wednesday, he received something to make his stay at the Lakewood-area church a little more comfortable: a pillow handmade by Juana Ortega,
thought to be the first person to take sanctuary in a North Carolina church from the Trump administration's ramped-up immigration enforcement policies. By moving into CityWell, Oliver-Bruno becomes the fifth.
The church held a press conference Wednesday to announce its decision and show support for Oliver-Bruno and his family.
A slight and gentle man
who had been taking classes at Duke Divinity School, Oliver-Bruno thanked God, the congregation, and its pastors for opening their doors to him. His first few days at the church have been good, he said, "but I can't help but miss my family."
"I cannot give up," he said. "I have to fight for my family. I have to stay because they need me."
His family remains in Greenville, where Oliver-Bruno has lived for the twenty-two years he has spent in America. His wife, who suffers from lupus and a resulting heart condition, receives medical treatment there; his son, Daniel, is a senior at Greenville's J.H. Rose High School.
Without Oliver-Bruno, the family worries Julia will not be able to afford the medication she needs and Daniel will have to drop out of high school to work, rather than pursuing a college education.
"I don't know how long I will subsist without him," a tearful Julia told a crowd of supporters, who packed onto
the church's altar holding signs reading, "Jesus was an immigrant" and "Keep families together."
In 2014, Oliver-Bruno and his family traveled to Mexico to visit sick relatives. When his wife had to return to the U.S. for open heart surgery, Oliver-Bruno tried to re-enter the country but was detained at the border. He was released and given a stay of removal, which he says he was able to renew regularly until this summer.
In July, he was told his stay would not be continued and was instructed to buy a one-way ticket leaving the country by last Sunday. He bought the ticket.
"Up until a few days ago, he was going to leave," said Viridiana Martinez, with the immigrant-rights group Alerta Migratoria.
But on Friday, CityWell decided to offer him sanctuary. ICE's sensitive locations policy
instructs agents to generally avoid immigration enforcement action at places of worship, as well as schools, medical facilities, and public demonstrations.
“Receiving Samuel into sanctuary
has everything to do with our wanting to receive the ways of Jesus as our way of life,” said Pastor Cleve May.
May said the decision came after months of deliberation by his congregation over whether and to what extent they would be part of a revived sanctuary movement. All of this was essentially hypothetical until earlier this month, when a congregant asked the church to help Oliver-Bruno, whom she knew from a church in Greenville.
"That this sanctuary relationship is necessary is a great tragedy," May said. " ... As human beings, we ought to be appalled at the injustice of our system. I wish I could say this is simply President Trump's system, but as a nation, we have to own this as our
system. This our injustice, and unless we are content to remain complicit in it and promote its perpetuation by our silence, it is incumbent on us all, it is morally imperative for us to work to change the system."
Realizing the decision might subject congregants and neighbors of the church to ICE surveillance or draw attention to their own pending immigration cases, CityWell members spent five days canvassing the neighborhood, interviewing seventy residents and seven business owners. They also consulted with lawyers about what risks the church could face but ultimately decided "they were risks we were willing to take."
A sign on the door of CityWell United Methodist Church.
"It may be currently legal in the United States to deport Samuel, but nowhere in God's earth is this just," May said.
May said the church is undertaking $20,000 in renovations to accommodate Oliver-Bruno. It has a bedroom and shower and the church is working on a full-service kitchen. But figuring out how to not just house Oliver-Bruno but also wrap a community around him is like "building an airplane while you fly it," May said. Congregants plan to visit and bring food and hold events at the church so Oliver-Bruno can participate.
Oliver-Bruno is the fifth immigrant to enter sanctuary at a church in North Carolina, although Minerva Garcia left a Greensboro church in October after her deportation order was lifted. He is the second person, after Jose Chicas
, to take sanctuary at a church in Durham.
According to Church World Service, thirty-two congregations nationwide are housing immigrants facing deportation, reports USA Today
. May, joined by fellow CityWell pastor Gloria Winston-Harris and other North Carolina clergy who have offered sanctuary to immigrants, urged more churches to do the same.
"Samuel’s case is a perfect illustration of how broken our immigration system is, and how when that broken system is aggressively enforced, it breaks apart families. This is a basic moral issue and a central issue in our faith," said May. "Samuel is a good man, a faithful husband, a loving father, a hard worker, and a contributor to his community and our society. His family needs him here, and I believe we all do as well. Our hope and prayer is that through the time afforded by sanctuary, a way will be found for him to stay here in North Carolina with his family, his church, and his community.”