For Vicky Chavez, every unexpected knock on the door is a cause for alarm.
For nine weeks, Chavez and her two daughters — 6-year-old Yaretzi and 8-month-old Issabella — have been hunkered down, avoiding deportation to Honduras and, she said, a death sentence, by seeking sanctuary within the walls of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City.
So far, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have stayed away, respecting the time-honored sanctity of the church’s protection.
But when the knock came Easter Sunday, Chavez didn’t know what to expect.
It turned out to be a happy surprise. Chavez’s parents and family, who’d told her they were going to California, had brought food and spent the holiday with her.
Chavez came to the United States four years ago to escape an abusive, violent boyfriend who had repeatedly threatened to kill her. She requested asylum and was able to stay legally while her case made its way through the system.
But her asylum request was denied and the government ordered her to return to Honduras, where she feared her boyfriend would make good on his promise.
Instead, she sought protection in the church.
Since then, she and her family have been living upstairs, in a former Sunday school classroom that has been converted into a makeshift studio apartment that looks out onto a fenced-in courtyard. There are a crib, a bed, a bathroom and a small kitchen area.
Yaretzi can play in the church’s hallways and its communal area, but none of the Chavez family can as much as set a foot outside the church’s walls as long as immigration officials are considering her request to reopen her asylum case based on the assertion that her previous lawyer bungled it.
“I feel like we’ve been here for a year, but we’re OK. We’re comfortable,” Chavez said through an interpreter. “I feel that I have made the best decision, even though we don’t know what will happen in the future; this was for the best, for my children, especially.”
It could take several more months for her appeal to be considered and the family, Chavez said, is willing to stay as long as it takes. Inside the church is where Yaretzi is learning to read and Bella is learning to take her first steps.
Her case drew national attention when she sought sanctuary in the church. Support poured in from much of the country, as did some negativity.
Those people, Chavez said, “should try to put themselves in my shoes. Nobody can understand the danger that is in Honduras. They don’t understand what it’s like to receive death threats, and they don’t understand that the biggest danger would be for my children.”
But Vicky and her family are only part of the story.
Because none of this would be possible without a congregation that opened its arms to a young woman they didn’t know and the army of volunteers, 500 strong, who have rallied behind her. They range from university students in their 20s to people in their 80s, said the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, the church’s pastor.
Around the clock, people are stationed on a rotating schedule at the church’s locked doors to look after the family’s safety. Volunteers come daily to make sure Bella is learning to read and not missing out on her schooling. They are helping Vicky learn English and have taught her to crochet.
“I am so grateful for everyone,” said Chavez, who is Mormon. “I love them all with my entire heart. I feel like I’m with my own family.”
Congregants had about a half-hour’s notice that Chavez was coming, Goldsmith said, and they didn’t know what to expect.
“We didn’t know if we were going to be in the hospitality business and run this like a hotel, or if something really meaningful was going to be wrought from this experience, and it’s been so meaningful that it almost defies words,” he said.
“We initially took a step for social justice — social justice really is the heart and soul of that church — and we have seen so much more in return,” Goldsmith said. “These are going to be ties that remain with us for a lifetime.”
That Easter Sunday, Chavez said she went downstairs to the chapel to hear Goldsmith’s sermon — he spoke, not surprisingly, about rebirth and everlasting life — and she felt welcomed and loved.
The story goes to the essence of Christianity, Goldsmith said. “Love your neighbor as thyself.”
Perhaps Vicky Chavez’s story will force us, as a community, to confront this question — who do we want to be?
She came to this country seeking refuge and was told to go home. She came to this church seeking sanctuary and was welcomed with love.