Crossing language barriers for sanctuary

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, had less than a day to decide to offer sanctuary to Maria Chavalan Sut. On September 29, 2018, the Charlottesville-area Immigration Resource and Advocacy Coalition approached Wesley's pastor, the Rev. Isaac Collins, to ask if the church would accept a Kaqchikel Guatemalan native for sanctuary. After the September 30th worship service, Collins and members of the congregation sat down with community leaders to discuss her case. Then, the church council voted unanimously to accept her as their first sanctuary guest and opened their doors that day.

Wesley Memorial UMC in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo: Courtesy Wesley Memorial UMC.

Chavalan Sut, in her mid-40s, has experienced the kind of violence that leaves deep scars, scars that nag at her and make it difficult to feel safe and secure. She's a survivor of the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), but her home and village were burned to the ground. Her uncle and cousins were buried alive. The Kaqchikel are one of 26 Mayan indigenous groups of Guatemala. The BBC reports that more than 200,000 people were killed over the course of the war, and 83% of those were of Mayan descent. The legacy of violence against indigenous women left by those years of terror continues to this day.

Despite the odds, Chavalan Sut graduated from school and became a teacher. She also worked to save her native language, producing and distributing Kaqchikel literature in Guatemala City. But in 2014, her family was once again targeted, this time by people who wanted her family's land. When she refused to sell, they set her house on fire while her family was still inside. In 2015, Chavalan Sut made her way to the United States.

Chavalan Sut followed the legal course open to her for entering the U.S, turning herself into U.S. border agents and asking for asylum. She passed the "credible fear" interview with a border agent and was released to wait until her case could be heard in an immigration court in Virginia.

Early in 2019, Wesley Memorial UMC submitted an application to the United Methodist Committee on Relief with an unusual request for a Global Migration grant. (Advance #3022144) Since Chavalan Sut is not fully fluent in English, the congregation wanted to extend its hospitality by providing simultaneous English-Spanish. The UMCOR grant provides translation equipment and funds to maintain a rotation of experienced translators through the year.

The church prepared a safe space for Maria, converting a Sunday school room with plumbing into an apartment. The church and Chavalan Sut are open and public about her sanctuary, as required by law, and they want community members and political leaders to understand her situation and support her case.

excerpt from a story by Christie R. House, senior writer/editor, Global Ministries

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