The only congregation in Oklahoma City to declare itself a sanctuary church held a vigil and accompaniment at the OKC headquarters of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service Thursday.
And the pastor of that congregation says their presence could have been one reason for a woman with an ill child being given 60 more days before the judge makes a decision about her deportation.
She will have to wear an ankle monitor over that 60 days.
Vigil of support
The group of about ten Mayflower Congregational Church, UCC members were joined by a few other immigration activists from the Deportation Defense Team of Dream Action Oklahoma, affiliate of United We Dream, an advocacy group pushing for Congress to pass a Dream Act and opposing deportations until it passes.
At first, the group was told to move off of USCIS property and stand by the street. Later they were allowed to come back and wait by the front door of the facility.
Mayflower has declared itself a sanctuary church, which means they will do as much as they can to help stop or slow down what they consider to be unjust deportations of immigrants.
The most extreme action sanctuary churches make is to house immigrants in their church buildings. Mayflower has not done that yet.
Activists and church members were there in support of an undocumented immigrant mother of a 5-year-old autistic son born in the U.S. The boy is currently being treated for juvenile Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of cancer.
Free Press knows her identity and talked with her Thursday. We are not publishing her name and country of origin for her safety.
She was there to check in with USCIS but was fearful that she would be detained and sent back to Latin America, which has happened with greater frequency under the Donald Trump presidency.
The southside Homeland Security building at 4400 SW 44th Street, also houses Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE, the enforcement branch of USCIS.
With both agencies in the same building, it’s easier for undocumented immigrants to be arrested when they come for check-ins.
The immigrant’s son is being treated by an oncologist, Dr. Rene McNall, who is an active member of Mayflower church.
“She’s the only one who gets his medications and takes him to the doctor’s appointments. Dad works,” said McNall.
“His autism is where the stability really comes in. He really responds well with his mommy but doesn’t respond well when he is with others.”
But, he is responding well to the treatments after the first twelve weeks of three days per week, she said.
The woman was allowed to leave and was greeted with hugs from the vigil participants when she walked out of the building in tears.
The immigration judge decided to have her fitted with an ankle monitor for the next 60 days and then come back for another deportation hearing.
Dr. Robin Meyers, senior minister of Mayflower church, attributed the decision not to deport the woman to the presence of the vigil group.
“I think knowing that the person has community supporting them and that all those people could, in fact, go out and talk about the injustice of deporting the mother of a very, very ill child, makes them think twice,” said Meyers.
“It’s much easier to do things in secret or when only a handful of people know that when it’s in front of a larger group.”
“This is a response to faith,” said Meyers. “It’s not judgment on what somebody has done. We’re just going to stand with people who are frightened, and these people are frightened. It seems like the least thing we can do.”
Mayflower members are accustomed to being at the center of controversial stands.
They were the first church in a mainline denomination in Oklahoma City to openly welcome people of all sexual identities.
Now, members are holding vigils against the stepped-up deportations of undocumented immigrants in a state that voted heavily for President Donald Trump in 2016.
It’s taken some time for Meyers and Lori Walke, associate minister of the church, to convince ICE that they are not protesting or trying to engage in some sort of violence.
Meyers told about a recent meeting he and Walke had with an ICE agent who came “in full tactical gear” before their first vigil.
The agent referred to their planned action as a “protest” but they eventually convinced him that a vigil is a prayerful presence as “a response of solidarity,” not a protest.
They both believed that meeting was why the agents allowed them to accompany the immigrant into the building even though they were not allowed to sit in on the hearing with the judge.
Thursday’s action was the first accompaniment the church was a part of in the city. But, several members have been involved in accompaniments in other cities like Tulsa and Dallas.
And the congregation has organized other vigils outside of ICE offices throughout the city.
The oldest church members at the vigil were Bill Gorthoeffner and his wife, Jane. He’s 91 and she’s 87.
They both said it wasn’t really a hard decision to be there. It was a response out of faith.
One of the youngest members there was Amanda Girdler, an elementary school teacher on spring break.
“I’ve had to comfort 5-year-olds whose uncles and dads got deported in the middle of the night,” she said. “So it’s not okay separating families.”
We asked how participating in the vigil was a part of her faith journey.
“It’s important to us at Mayflower to welcome every single other no matter where a person may be at in their faith journey. We try to practice what we preach.”