Forest Hill is a 'sanctuary' church
Cleveland Heights was in the national spotlight on Sept. 12 when Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian held a press conference announcing that it was granting sanctuary to Leonor Garcia, a single mother of four from Akron. The church is among a dozen religious institutions across the United States that are providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, and is the first in Northeast Ohio.
“My hope is to encourage more churches to declare themselves sanctuary and open their doors in hospitality to people who are in need,” said Forest Hill Church Pastor John Lentz.
Garcia came to this country as a teenager. “She was a homeowner, had a job, had absolutely no criminal record and had been checking in with immigration officials for years,” said Lentz. Then, when she checked in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in August, for a routine meeting, she was given an ankle monitor and told she would be deported on Sept. 14.
Lentz said Garcia has been working with a lawyer toward the goal that her “immigration status will be resolved and that she will be free to leave here while that application is being processed. That would be a great outcome and best of the short-term.”
For much of this year, Forest Hill Church had been contemplating its potential role in a national movement to provide a safe place for immigrants and others who feel endangered or vulnerable in the current political climate. “After President Trump’s initial travel ban, which affected several visitors to Cleveland Heights, I and other members of the church wanted to understand what a church could do,” said Lentz. Forest Hill was one of several community stakeholders that asked the city to declare itself a Sanctuary City earlier this year.
On Feb. 6, Cleveland Heights City Council considered the question and decided to declare itself a Welcoming City, rather than a Sanctuary City, because of potential risks.
In response to media inquiries about Forest Hill Church’s action, City Manager Tanisha Briley stated, “Cleveland Heights is designated a ‘Welcoming City.’ We have a long history of supporting racial and religious diversity and as a community welcoming people from all over the world. Forest Hill Presbyterian Church is doing what they believe is important to their community and their values.” She added: “The Cleveland Heights Police Department works tirelessly every day to protect and serve all members of our community.”
So far the federal government has maintained a policy of not enforcing immigration in churches, schools and other sensitive locations. “But we want to be really careful to make sure she is safe and protected,” Lentz said.
Garcia has been living at the church since Sept. 5, when church members hastily modified a room on the second floor for her use. Members brought furniture, converted closets, and donated a TV. Church trustees also committed funds to build a shower in one of the downstairs bathrooms.
Lentz said Garcia is doing “as good as she could possibly be,” given the situation. She is separated from her children, who visit occasionally. Her oldest daughter had to drop out of Kent State University to help with the other kids. Two volunteer coordinators, Sharon Shumaker and Charity McDonald, are orchestrating the church’s efforts to provide companionship for Garcia, while also respecting her privacy.
“We want her to make this her home,” said Lentz. “Leonor is a worker, she wants to do things around the church and get involved. We are open to whatever she wants to do. She is a great cook. She is a delight. She is OK, but I can’t imagine the toll, the stress of the situation. This is really, really hard on her.”
Asked about potential risks to the church, Lentz said, “When we found out about Leonor and met her and her children, and we knew what this was going to mean, there was no question.”
“I worry about what this means for the church and its membership, any number of things,” Lentz said. “But the bottom line is what does this mean for Leonor? If we were the agency that restored a mother to her children, that would be worth it.”
Lentz will speak on Oct. 12, 7 p.m., at the Cleveland Heights Community Center, on “Providing Sanctuary in Our City.” The event is sponsored by the Cleveland Heights Democrats.
Financial donations can be made in person or by mail to Forest Hill Church, 3031 Monticello Blvd., Cleveland Heights, OH 44118. (Indicate that the donation is for the Sanctuary Movement in the check memo line).
Deanna Bremer Fisher
Deanna Bremer Fisher is executive director of FutureHeights and publisher of the Heights Observer.