Lucio Perez: The loneliness of living in sanctuary

  • Perez clears chairs in the church at the end of the Spanish-language service. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez "gets some vitamin D" and stands outside on First Congregational Church’s property in Amherst after most everyone has left for the day. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez prays with others in First Congregational Church in Amherst during a service he attended of the First Hispanic Church of Amherst, which has met in the church for the last 26 years. Perez lives in the church, where he has sought sanctuary from deportation. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez prays with others in First Congregational Church in Amherst during a service he attended of the First Hispanic Church of Amherst, which has met in the church for the last 26 years. Perez lives in the church, where he has sought sanctuary from deportation. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Perez prays with members of First Hispanic Church at First Congregational Church on a recent Sunday night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez says good by to Rev. Jose M Pagan, the founder of the First Hispanic Church of Amherst, which meets on Sundays in First Congregational Church. Perez lives in the church, where he has sought sanctuary from deportation. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez "gets some vitamin D" and stands outside on the First Congregational Church property in Amherst after most everyone has left for the day. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • While standing on First Congregational Church property in Amherst, Lucio Perez talks about his life seeking sanctuary in the church. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Perez watches as children play on the church playground. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez “gets some vitamin D” and stands outside on First Congregational Church property after most everyone has left for the day. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez "gets some vitamin D" and talks on the phone outside on First Congregational Church property in Amherst after most everyone has left for the day. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez does his dinner dishes in First Congregational Church in Amherst, where he has sought sanctuary from deportation. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez "gets some vitamin D" and talks on the phone outside on First Congregational Church property in Amherst after most everyone has left for the day. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez watches as people leave First Congregational Church property in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez checks his tomato plants on the property of First Congregational Church in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez does his dinner dishes in First Congregational Church, where he has sought sanctuary from deportation. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez "gets some vitamin D" and talks on the phone outside on First Congregational Church property in Amherst after most everyone has left for the day. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez talks on his phone outside on First Congregational Church property in Amherst after most everyone has left for the day. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Perez has been spending some of his time growing tomatoes on the church property. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez, who has been living at First Congregational Church in Amherst for 10 months, stands outside the church as fellow churchgoers leave a recent Sunday service. Perez is unable to set foot off the church property for fear of arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “It’s very difficult, I can’t go out where they are,” he says as he watches them go. “They go home, they’re playing with their kids and I stay here... But at least I’m here.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant taking sanctuary in First Congregational Church in Amherst, front right, shares a quiet moment with his children Lucy Perez, 9, left, and Tony Perez, 15, during a visit with them Aug. 2, 2018 on the church property. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Perez plays basketball with his son Jordan Perez at the church. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant taking sanctuary in the First Congregational Church in Amherst, right, plays basketball with his son Jordan Perez, 14, during a visit with his children Aug. 2, 2018 at the church. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant taking sanctuary in the First Congregational Church in Amherst, center, goes up for a shot over sons Jordan Perez, 14, and Tony Perez, 15, during a visit with his children Aug. 2, 2018 on the church property. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant taking sanctuary in the First Congregational Church in Amherst, second from left, plays basketball with his sons Tony Perez, 15, left, Jordan Perez, 14, and his nephew Andy Mazariegos, 13, also of Springfield, during a visit Aug. 2, 2018 on the church property. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Perez center, is shown with, from left, his sons Tony Perez, 15, Jordan Perez, 14, nephew Andy Mazariegos, 13, and daughter Lucy Perez, 9, during a visit. STAFF PHOTO/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lucio Perez sits together with Artie McCollum, 38, one of the many "accompaniment volunteers" who take turns staying with Perez 24/7 inside First Congregational Church in Amherst, where Perez has taken sanctuary to avoid deportation. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/10/2018 9:43:20 PM

The sounds of the guitar and the singing have faded. The last “hallelujahs” and “amens” have echoed across the fluorescent-lit church basement, and voices that were raised in prayer are now chatting cheerily in Spanish. Worshipers begin stacking folding chairs and filing out of the basement of First Congregational Church on a recent Sunday.

A bulky GPS ankle monitor pokes out from under Lucio Perez’s slacks, tracking his every movement as he chats with his fellow congregants of the First Hispanic Church of Amherst, who come to the church weekly to hold services there. The conversations remain high-spirited as they all leave and head to their cars.

Perez, however, has to stay behind.

“It’s very difficult, I can’t go out where they are,” he says as he watches them go. “They go home, they’re playing with their kids and I stay here... But at least I’m here.”

It has been almost 10 months since Perez, of Springfield, began living in First Congregational day and night, unable to set foot off the property for fear of arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He is considered a fugitive from the law. But places like churches are deemed “sensitive locations” by ICE and they seldom make arrests there.

Perez, who has been in the United States since 1999, was ordered to leave the country last summer because of a 2009 deportation order resulting from a run in with police. Those charges were dropped, and the government granted him five stays of deportation during the Obama administration. But during Perez’s first annual check-in after Donald Trump’s election, he was ordered to leave the country.

Now, as his case hangs in legal purgatory while his advocates push for reconsideration, he has traded his tight-knit, Spanish-speaking community in Springfield for a largely English-speaking congregation that looks after his daily needs: food, lodging, transportation for his family and companionship.

It’s a secure, but often lonely existence.

He sees his four children during visits several times a week, and spends even less time with his wife, Dora, due to her overnight work schedule.

After the parishioners have gone, Perez leans heavily against a railing just outside the church door, staring absentmindedly. Screams of joy and occasional argument drift across the church yard from the playground.

“Is your son here?” one boy asks, a basketball in hand. “No,” Perez answers in English. “Tomorrow.”

No stranger to struggle

Perez heads back to his room.

It’s a well-furnished space — a bed, bureau, refrigerator, shelves of snack food. And there are lots of personal touches: framed pictures and flowers on a small table.

There, a stationary bike he hasn’t used since his appendix almost burst in May stands idle; a personal trainer used to come weekly but hasn’t since that surgery. There’s the guitar he hopes to pick up and learn, but that sits in its case leaning against the wall. And there’s the microwave, where he cooks much of his food.

Perez opens the refrigerator and removes a tamale his wife has made.

A traditional Mesoamerican dish, the starchy dough and filling are often wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks; this chicken-filled tamale, however, is tightly wrapped in tin foil in an attempt to keep it fresh.

The taste gives Perez a momentary feeling of being at home, he says, unwrapping the tamale and tossing it into a microwave.

“If it’s in the refrigerator longer, a little of the taste leaves,” he says. Perez puts dabs of hot sauce on top before smoothly slicing off a section with his fork, steam rising from the bite he savors.

He’s in a talkative mood, but the subject he chooses is religion.

Always a faithful man, he says, his time in sanctuary has brought him even closer to God.

He describes the path he has chosen as rough and narrow, making reference to the Biblical chapter of Matthew:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Volunteers from the First Congregational Church are always in the building with him. But loneliness and depression nevertheless creep in; he sees that as a battle with the devil.

“A moment arrives — boom — it attacks you, really,” Perez says. For him, those moments hit him most when his children’s visits to the church end. “In this situation, even though you see them, it’s painful… it’s very painful.”

Perez says he’s no stranger to struggle, however.

His arrival in the United States as an 18-year-old in 1999, he says, was marked by gang members holding a gun to his head and stripping him of all his valuables and clothing just before he crossed the U.S.-Mexican border.

He met Dora at church in 1997. The two were married the next year, and Dora came to the United States together with her uncle two years after Perez. The couple first settled in Delaware, and since then their lives have consisted mostly of hard labor — Perez worked most recently as a landscaper — and raising their family, which consists of three boys, ages 19, 15 and 14, and a 9-year-old daughter.

It was a fateful stop at a West Hartford Dunkin’ Donuts in 2009 that put Perez on this path. He left his children in the car while he and his wife went into the store, and returned to see police surrounding the car. He was charged with child abandonment as a result — charges that were soon dropped, according to his lawyer. That, however, put him on ICE’s radar.

His confinement now gives Perez ample time to reflect on the discrimination that undocumented immigrants face in this country, he says.

“It’s very hard to live in this country without papers,” he says.

He recounts previous employers withholding his pay with little explanation, the daily physical demands of manual labor — lifting 100-pound pallets with his back, operating a jackhammer for hours — and the lean season when outdoor work dried up in the winter. He still remembers the stare of fatigue on Dora’s face when she’d arrive home after a day of picking peppers under the summer sun of western Massachusetts, where the couple relocated in 2006 for work.

Working inside

Now Dora works the overnight shift in a factory. And inside the church, Perez tries to supplement her earnings by teaching Spanish lessons.

But what he lacks in formal knowledge of grammar, he makes up for with his personality, easily engaging in conversation in a teacherly-yet-inviting tone. He also occasionally has volunteer assistants help him. For those taking lessons, Perez's supporters suggest a sliding scale of donations: from $15 to $30 for group sessions, $25 to $50 for individual sessions.

The church basement is dark and quiet, and on a recent Monday the silence is broken only by the voices of Perez and his student, Aaron Bergeron, 29, a dishwasher at the Northampton Brewery.

“I been working all my day,” Bergeron tells Perez in broken Spanish.

“I hope I can go to the restaurant someday,” Perez responds.

Bergeron wants to learn Spanish to bond with his Spanish-speaking co-workers. He and Perez sit in front of a blackboard where chalk-drawn conjugations of verbs provide a background to their lesson. Today it’s about hair: curly hair, loose hair, blond hair, it all needs to be combed.

“The phrases in Spanish are so different,” Bergeron says with a laugh. Eventually, Perez takes out his cell phone to play one of his favorite songs — “I Will Miss You” by the Christian-pop duo Tercer Cielo and he and Bergeron move on to analyzing the lyrics.

“I will miss you, that’s for sure,” the song goes, describing a loved one who has died. “The details, the little things, what seemed unimportant, they are what invade my mind the most when remembering you.”

Details are what Perez grasps onto in order to pass the time, throwing himself fully into the planning of community get-togethers, strategy sessions with activists, visits from his family and a weekly video conference with dozens of others living in sanctuary across the country. His days have become routine, consisting of large stretches of down time peppered with these planned activities.

Teams of support

His day that Monday begins with coffee and biscuits at 6 a.m., followed around 8:30 a.m. by a meeting with an organizer from the Pioneer Valley Workers Center before the hour-long Spanish lesson at 10. The rest of the day is spent waiting for his children and supporters to arrive for a monthly potluck dinner.

Keeping just one person in sanctuary requires an enormous effort — from church members, activists, volunteers and other religious communities. Hundreds of people alternate taking shifts, attending to his daily needs: driving his family back-and-forth from Springfield, cooking meals, washing clothes, raising money and organizing everything from birthday parties for his children to medical care.

“It takes a community," says Rev. Vicki Kemper.

Members of 12 faith-based communities prepare food, more than 200 people take turns staying in the church with Perez and 87 drivers have pitched in to give Perez’s family more than 350 rides to and from Springfield.

“An unintended or unexpected consequence and benefit of sanctuary for everyone involved has been the creation of this new community,” Kemper says.

Kemper says church members knew some of what they were in for when they took Perez in, but they are learning as they go as they face an unforeseeable, and likely large, block of time looming ahead.

“We have no sense how long that will be,” she says. “We pray each and every day in our worship services for him and his family, and for them to be reunited and for him to be home again and for there to be justice executed in his case. And we also pray for our own strength and stamina.”

Much also remains uncertain about Perez’s legal situation. His legal team is still petitioning the Board of Immigration Appeals to reopen his case, with supporters raising funds to pay the bills.

Every night and day, at least one “accompaniment volunteer” is at the church staying in a room next to Perez, who will spend long hours talking with them when he is in the mood. Sometimes they struggle between English and Spanish, circling around language gaps and misunderstandings, grabbing at every bit of comprehension and simply laughing at what slips through the linguistic holes.

Other times, the volunteer speaks Spanish well, and that is when part of the real Perez seems to emerge. He engages in lengthy descriptions of his faith, quotes scripture extensively and uses his own situation as a testament to God’s ultimate plan for everyone.

On this day, the two accompaniment volunteers, Joan Epstein and Annique Boomsma, spend hours speaking in Spanish with Perez; Boomsma speaks quite well, and Epstein says her understanding and communication have improved significantly since she and Boomsma began taking biweekly shifts. The two have a tradition when they stay with Perez — ordering food from the restaurant Bueno y Sano and enjoying it together. 

The three sit at a small, round table in the room where volunteers sleep, a map of Guatemala on the wall and an in-progress puzzle on another table. Perez implores everyone to hold hands, bows his head over his meal of fish tacos and begins to pray — for Epstein and Boomsma, for the food, for others in difficult situations.

Epstein is also a member of the Jewish Community of Amherst, one of the many faith communities that take turns cooking for Perez every week. She looked up a Guatemalan recipe online, she says, and does her best to emulate the food he and his family likes.

Though she is happy to be helping Perez, she says she gets something out of it too. They have become friends. “It was a good fit for me,” she says.

Family time

There are many uncertainties with his situation, Perez says. But all those questions take a backseat when his family arrives.

As volunteers begin to show up for the monthly potluck preparation, Perez talks on the phone with his brother-in-law in Guatemala and in English greets those arriving. But his eyes keep glancing at the basement entrance.

Through the window he finally sees his children — 15-year-old Tony, 14-year-old Jordan and 9-year-old Lucy — and stops conversation mid-sentence. “The kids are here,” he says, power-walking to the door with a grin.

Lucy, Jordan and Tony appear comfortable in the church, mingling easily with the people arriving for the dinner, many who have become familiar faces after so many months. Lucy helps a volunteer make greeting cards, and then is off chasing other children around the halls. The boys talk about playing basketball at the hoop just outside the church, and more than occasionally disappear back into their father’s room.

“I understand those kids that are in jail,” Perez says, making reference to immigrant children that have been separated from their families at the border under a Trump administration policy. “And it is a jail, like a cage that rabbits or animals live in.”

Visits from his family and his strong faith keep him alive inside his own prison inside the church, Perez says.

Sometimes he shoots baskets with his sons, and plays on the playground with Lucy. 

Tonight, however, they mostly hang out by themselves while Perez kneads dough to make tortillas for the potluck. The muscles in his forearms flex as around a dozen others bustle about the church’s large, clean kitchen, filling up pitchers of water, pressing and cooking tortillas as the industrial-sized fans about the stove hum quietly.

“Come help with this,” he calls out to his sons. They flash big smiles, and decline, and Perez keeps working.

When dinner is ready, Perez leads the large crowd in prayer, then sits down with his children to eat. But soon they are off again to do their own thing. Perez chats amicably in Spanish with one of the guests, but his eyes wander around the room, seemingly looking for the children.

“I see them, but it’s not the same,” he said of these visits.

He tells of one recent visit when he consoled Lucy as she was leaving. He says he reminded her that God is with them. And when she left, he broke down crying. “It hasn’t been easy for them… but as a parent you have to be the example,” he says.

When his appendix became inflamed in May, the fear of leaving the church to get medical attention kept him glued to his bed for a perilously long time. The terror of deportation — of being separated, possibly forever, from his family — was nearly fatal. He finally agreed to an ambulance ride to the hospital and got the surgery he needed only to be told by his doctor that had he waited just a bit longer, he might have died.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to go,’” he recalls. But the doctor sat on his bed, refusing to leave him. “Thank God for the doctor for insisting.”

As Perez sees it, he is not just fighting to stay with his family, but is also serving as an example to others in difficult situations. He said he often talks with other undocumented immigrants about their worries and fears. But all that weight on his shoulders can get heavy.

“You try to encourage others, but you get attacked by the devil,” he says. “It’s hard.”

Perez said he tries not to think about anything but the next day, the next event, the next time he can see his family again.

“This will end. This won’t be for my whole life, this will end.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

Jobs



Support Local Journalism


Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

© 2018 Daily Hampshire Gazette