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Cleveland Interfaith Gathering for Father's Day Prays for Reunification of Immigrant Families

Photo of speakers
WKSU public radio
The Father's Day service drew faith leaders and immmigration advocates to Pilgrim Congregational church, which became Northeast Ohio's fourth sanctuary church last month.

One of Northeast Ohio’s four sanctuary churches held an interfaith prayer service this weekend marking Father’s Day and protesting the splitting of families that is increasingly part of national immigration policy.  WKSU’s M.L. Schultze spoke with the pastor of Cleveland’s Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ about the evolution of the movement.

The Rev. Kelly Burd and about 75 others gathered outside the imposing stone church on Cleveland’s west side, praying for guidance, faith and courage.

Photo of Kelly Burd
Credit RICHARD SENFTEN / WKSU public radio
WKSU public radio
The Rev. Kelly Burd says the Gospel message is one of sanctuary.

“On this weekend when our nation lifts up and celebrates the role of family and the love of children for parents and parents for children, we are watching in real time the atrocities of division…”

The church formally became a refuge for Eulogio Hernandez Box a month ago. Byrd says that followed months of planning and a century of tradition for her church.

“It was built as a place of hospitality and support for incoming immigrants when there was -- even back then -- hostilities. … So we feel like we’re standing on a long legacy of holy work that involves hospitality and love of neighbor in this particular way.”

She acknowledges there are mixed feelings among immigrant advocates about drawing attention to particular situations: Where that seemed to work in immigrants’ favor in the past, it may actually make some a bigger target for Immigration and Customs Enforcement today.

Recognizing that, Byrd says, her group took month studying the issue before it opened its doors.

“We decided we would only be referred by someone who was under immediate threat and someone who had asked,” she says. That person turned out to be Box, a father of four American-born children who came up from central Ohio, where he had been active in his Catholic church and a leader in his community.

'I think anyone who knows the love of a child and the anxiety of losing them for 10 minutes in a grocery store can only image the horror of being told that your children are being removed from you ...'

Byrd says the sanctuary gives him a little time and a chance to legally go through the process of asking for a stay of deportation. “But he also felt it was an important way to highlight what other people are going through and to call attention to this.

Pilgrim’s involvement in immigrant issues predated Trump administration policy that includes separating parents from their children at the border. But Byrd says the cause has a new urgency.

“As a parent, it tears my heart out. I have two young children. I think anyone who knows the love of a child and the anxiety of losing them for 10 minutes in a grocery store can only image the horror of being told that your children are being removed from you, or being tricked into taking them into another room and not being reuinited.

“…. It’s not just a human rights violation, I believe it to be a form of terrorism. … It stands against everything we believe as people of faith.

Eulogio Hernandez Box
Credit RICHARD SENFTEN / WKSU public radio
WKSU public radio
Eulogio Hernandez Box, who took sanctuary at Pilgrim last month was briefly reuinited with his children at the church for Father's Day.

“Our ways of being together in this world need to honor the basic essence of a family and the basic human dignity of people.

She acknowledges that Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited a verse from Paul to the Romans calling for obedience to the law in justifying the policy. And White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it “Biblical.”

And Byrd responded, “Slavery was Biblical; are we justifying that? The ownership of pharaoh over the Israelites and the mass genocide in the Bible – it’s Biblical, but it’s not in keeping with our moral values that come out of the Bible.”

In contrast, she said, “Look at the teaching of Jesus. You see a teaching that is based in love that is rooted in care for the neighbor, for the orphan, for the widow, for the foreigner.”

Byrd says she and other advocates plan to launch a campaign through the fall and is encouraging other churches to take a closer look at the sanctuary movement.

“Talk to your faith leaders. Explore what your faith tradition says about this. …. And think about -- even if you can’t take someone in physically – becoming a sanctuary church in spirit and in advocacy and education.”