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In Germantown, a sanctuary church resists the federal government – again

Today, 14 people are living in Philadelphia churches, by far the most of any city in the country. No other city or town has more than three.

Rev. Bob Coombe, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Germantown, right, and Marion Brown, left, who was close to the Guatemalan family who took sanctuary in the church in the 1980s,
Rev. Bob Coombe, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Germantown, right, and Marion Brown, left, who was close to the Guatemalan family who took sanctuary in the church in the 1980s,Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

On the last Sunday in July, after services, when most worshipers had left, the leaders of First United Methodist Church of Germantown met for a confidential discussion.

The details could not leave the room. People's safety was at stake.

The church, the Rev. Bob Coombe explained to the group, had been asked to provide sanctuary for two immigrant families facing imminent deportation to dangerous homelands. It wasn't clear how many people might move into the church, and it was less certain how long they might stay — easily months or more.

The leaders had no doubt what they, or the congregation, would do. The question of offering help was not "if" but "how."

"In the 1980s, we voted to become a sanctuary church," one man spoke up. "I don't recall us ever rescinding that."

Today, a family from Jamaica and another from Honduras have taken residence within the church's gray stone walls, seeking to put themselves beyond the reach of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

In offering protection, First United bound itself to what has become a growing national sanctuary movement. And it reanimated a strand of its own DNA that had lain dormant more than 30 years, when the church first defied the law and the federal government by sheltering a family from Guatemala.

"I've been kind of wondering for a while when this would happen," said longtime churchgoer Marion Brown, 73.

In First United's labyrinthine halls and office warrens, its clergy work with the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia to forge a support system for the nine members of the Thompson and Reyes families, both of whom have U.S.-citizen children.

Fourteen people now are living in Philadelphia churches, including Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her sons and daughters, who took refuge in the Church of the Advocate in December. That is by far the most of any city in the country, according to Church World Service, a Christian coalition that tracks sanctuary cases.

Nationwide, 51 people are in sanctuary, up from 42 in January and from five just two years ago. All took refuge as a last resort, knowing that ICE guidelines dissuade officers from making arrests at "sensitive locations," including churches, schools and hospitals.

Many of those people have lived years in America, working jobs and building lives before becoming targets of a Trump administration bent on curtailing virtually all forms of immigration.

In the 1980s, when Donald Trump was a New York real-estate developer, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, most of whom had never set foot in the U.S., fled north to escape civil war.

A succession of military governments in Guatemala burned down villages and murdered labor organizers, teachers and priests. In El Salvador, the number of civilians killed by death squads was approaching 40,000.

In both places, the United States had intervened on the side of the governments, which were fighting popular communist movements. In Nicaragua, the U.S. aided the Contra rebels who wanted to oust the socialist Sandinista regime.

The Reagan administration contended that the Central American immigrants were trying to escape poverty, not violence — so they weren't political refugees who would be covered under the 1980 Refugee Act.

Churches in Tucson believed otherwise and declared themselves sanctuaries. The movement spread. In January 1984, Tabernacle United Church in West Philadelphia became the first in the region to proclaim itself a sanctuary.

First United Methodist, known as FUMCOG, followed suit that May. And in August, a young couple from Guatemala arrived at the church with their daughter, having journeyed to Philadelphia on a modern Underground Railroad. They said they could be killed if they were sent back.

They took the names Joel and Gabriella, ages 25 and 20, and called their 3-year-old daughter Lucy.

The girl would grow up to become an American immigrant success story, earning college degrees and being promoted up the ranks of a major international company. But at the time, she was a child far from home, surrounded by strangers.

Joel had been a union organizer and a student leader, dangerous pursuits in Guatemala. Government agents had abducted and tortured him, leaving him deaf in one ear, his arm scarred from cigarette burns.

When his name appeared on two death lists, he and Gabriella fled.

At the church, they spoke out for themselves and other refugees, cloaking their faces with scarves to avoid endangering family members at home, but not hiding their whereabouts from a government preparing to pounce.

The Reagan administration had taken aim at the network of sanctuary churches and synagogues, warning that smuggling and harboring "illegal aliens" could get clergy and laymen up to five years in jail.

The Rev. Theodore Loder, the FUMCOG pastor, wasn't afraid.

"If the INS wants to put into jail good Samaritans, then let us go," he said at the time. "We knew it was an act of civil disobedience when we took them in."

At the church, Joel, Gabriella, and Lucy lived in a choir room, a space that came with a built-in dilemma: no heat.

"The housing that worked in the fall was not going to work in the winter," said Brown, the longtime church member.

As the weather turned, the family quietly left the church and moved into a small apartment that Brown owned in Germantown. The place was set back from the street, away from the eyes of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In January, Joel got a phone call from a friend in the movement: Hey, I want to send a gift to Lucy. What's your address these days?

The next week, INS officers showed up at the apartment and arrested Gabriella. Joel turned himself in, later learning that he'd been betrayed by an informant.

Their arrests were part of a nationwide strike in which authorities arrested about 60 undocumented immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador. In Arizona, two priests, three nuns, and a pastor were among 16 sanctuary leaders indicted by a federal grand jury.

"The clergy is not protected by their cloths," U.S. Attorney A. Melvin McDonald said in Phoenix.

The church put up the $3,000 bail to free Joel and Gabriella — who returned to their apartment — and prepared for a legal battle to win them asylum. Lawyer Ted Walkenhorst and his team gathered evidence showing the danger the couple would face in Guatemala, submitting a six-inch-thick filing to the State Department.

"We put on a very strong case," Walkenhorst recalled last week, "and prayed a lot."

In November 1986, more than two years after the family took sanctuary, the Immigration Court ruled in their favor — a huge victory at a time when only 1 percent of Guatemalan refugees were being granted asylum.

"This is like a blessing from God," Joel told the Inquirer after the ruling.

By then, he and Gabriella had a new baby, a son. The family stayed in the area. They became American citizens.

Lucy graduated from Central High, then earned a bachelor's degree at Bloomsburg University and a master's at La Salle University. And she reclaimed her family name, Luz Morales.

From a start as an intern at IKEA, she was promoted to assistant manager of the Conshohocken store, then to positions in marketing. Two years ago, she moved to Lyon, France, to become internal communications manager for Ikea distribution services across southern Europe.

Now 37, she remembers little of her time in sanctuary — yet the weight of those years continues to shape her life.

She is, she said in an email, stubbornly optimistic, grateful for the help she received and trying to help others now, supporting groups such as Aide Aux Refugies, which assists refugees in Lyon and elsewhere.

"Everything about that time of my life has influenced how I am, who I am, and who I strive to be," Morales said. "I see FUMCOG as this community — this family — that raised me and supported me. At the time in my life when I was the most vulnerable, there were strangers who were willing to take a risk for me."