Columnist Cat Chapin-Bishop: Helping provide sanctuary for Lucio Perez

  • Area faith leaders including Maria Pagan, pastor at First Hispanic Church of Amherst, left, Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, second from left, and Vanessa Cardinale, pastor at Amherst South Congregational Church, front right, lay hands on Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, center, to pray with him during a press conference Oct. 19. The First Congregational Church of Amherst is providing sanctuary to Perez. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Tuesday afternoon, I check my duffle. I have my sleeping bag, of course. Fuzzy slippers? Check. Bathrobe, nightgown, toothbrush? Check, check and check.

I am one of the hundred-plus volunteers who assist Lucio Perez, an undocumented father of three, with food, rides, and round-the-clock accompaniment in the sanctuary of First Congregational Church in Amherst.

For me, it has been satisfying, easy work, getting to know the soft-voiced, generous man who is so patient with my schoolgirl Spanish. For him, it has been a cold, difficult fall and winter, separated from the family he loves. He can only hope to win his appeal, and to stave off a greater, more permanent separation.

When I arrive, Lucio is eating his supper. We speak of our families. We are both the proud parents of beautiful daughters, whom we don’t get to see as much as we would like. I, because my daughter is all grown up and living in Boston, and he, because he can only see her when a volunteer has been available to drive her to see her father.

Though he doesn’t complain, though he is surrounded by people, it is still clear: Life in sanctuary is lonely. The goodwill of strangers is no substitute for being home, and I grope for words, limping along in broken Spanish. I wish there were some way to ease the hurt of any of that.

I grope for other words, too … words to share with other, documented Americans, who don’t grasp what is happening here.

“Why doesn’t he just get in line?” I hear. “Why didn’t he come to the United States legally, like my ancestors did?”

It’s too easy, for those of us who have never had to worry about a knock on the door, to assume that the laws on our books make sense. It’s too easy to assume, if our own ancestors were able to become legal citizens without more than courage and hard work, that the same is true today.

What too many of us in this nation of immigrants don’t seem to understand is that the barriers to immigration to the United States are far greater than they were in our grandparents’ and our great-grandparents’ day. When the Statue of Liberty was new, 98 percent of those who sought to enter the country were admitted. Now, however, through our visa lottery system, less than ½ percent of those who apply for a green card will receive one, and that after years of waiting and thousands of dollars in legal costs and fees.

If my father’s ancestors had needed to seek admission under current laws, they would have died in the Holocaust. I would never even have been born. Knowing that, how can I turn away from Lucio, his family, or the thousands of others in his shoes?

Sometimes, courage and hard work just aren’t enough — and those fleeing violence and poverty, like Lucio, like millions of other productive, honest men and women, find themselves in the shadow of a legal system that doesn’t allow for the ordinary humanity of ordinary men and women trying to raise a family in peace. Sometimes, in a democracy like ours, those of us whose rights are not in doubt need to find the words, to raise our voices, for those whose rights are not so secure.

And sometimes, as a woman of faith, I have to pack up my sleeping bag, my toothbrush, and my favorite pillow, and go out and do what small thing I can for someone whose courage puts mine to shame.

Cat Chapin-Bishop, of Leeds, is a retired school teacher, and a member of Mount Toby Quaker Meeting.