ITHACA, N.Y.—The First Congregational Church of Ithaca (FCCI) has welcomed a new family to its “sanctuary space”—a small apartment on the church grounds.
Jenny Auqui, Edgar Escarrathe and their two daughters will be staying in the apartment attached to the church. The family, hailing from Peru, was introduced at a small press conference held last week. They are currently seeking asylum in the United States and are awaiting a determination on their asylum application.
Escarrathe addressed those gathered at the conference, emotionally expressing his gratitude to the church and the wider community.
“I feel so secure here, and I don’t know how to repay the generosity that you’re sharing with us,” he said, through a translator. “But I feel so comfortable and safe with my family here.”
The apartment is reserved for immigrant families seeking sanctuary in the United States, normally fleeing conflict in their homeland. Families are able to live in the apartment for free while they await the outcome of their immigration process.
The congregation’s first guests—two people, including a young child, seeking asylum—recently moved out of the apartment.
The First Congregational Church of Ithaca is a member of the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance, a group of local religious organizations that formed in 2019 with the goal of welcoming, housing and supporting immigrants who need to leave their home countries but have not legally been granted asylum yet. Members of the alliance spoke at the event, including from First Congregational Church, First Baptist Church in Ithaca and Tikkun v’Or Temple.
Support includes food, transportation and daycare services, largely fueled by a team of 8-10 people who make up the sanctuary team. It is funded by donations from individuals and other Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance member organizations. The group also holds fundraisers, like the occasional community dinner.
Currently, the alliance is undertaking a winter clothing drive for the family, who arrived from Peru without much cold-weather gear. This will be the family’s first experience of winter, according to Sanctuary Ministry coordinator Michael Smith.
“First Congregational Church believes that welcoming and housing undocumented human beings, some of society’s most vulnerable people, is a sacred calling,” said Rev. David Kaden, senior minister at FCCI. “It is the right thing to do.”
Kaden said while it is unclear how long it will take Auqui, Escarrathe and their children to have their asylum application approved, he expects them to be staying with FCCI for about a year.
FCCI declared itself a “sanctuary church” in 2019, Smith said, and to this day is one of the only sanctuary churches in the state. Months of fundraising and renovations followed as Smith and others converted a community room into an apartment.
Kaden said the church’s intention when accepting a family or person is that they will eventually receive legal status in the U.S., among other criteria. Kaden said they find prospective tenants through their networks of immigration advocates and other churches throughout the state.
“People who are good candidates for entering into sanctuary, they’re not doing it because they want to, because of whatever situation they’re coming from, their lives were in danger,” Kaden said. “To go back to their home country could mean their life.”
In summer 2020, the church’s first guests arrived—a woman named Drucila Mateo and her two-year-old daughter. The two lived in the apartment for about two years while they waited for the lengthy asylum process to finish, complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a good thing to meet everyone here, they helped me a lot when I came here,” Mateo said during the event. “They asked me what my dreams were. I said I wanted to continue my studies and learn English.”
Mateo did just that over the last two years, expanding her knowledge of the new language from a few numbers and her name to speaking English almost fluently during the press conference. She thanked the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance, the Immigrants Rights Coalition and other attendees for helping her apply and receive asylum.
Last year, Mateo obtained her green card, found a job and rented her own housing, enabling her to leave. She encouraged others to get involved with the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance, recounting the group’s impact on her life.
“When I didn’t have my legal status, I was always thinking that maybe [Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents] would come and get me, and then I would lose everything here,” Mateo said, growing emotional toward the end of her remarks. “Now I don’t think that way anymore. […] We’re not afraid anymore.”