By Aranza Lara Arzipe
Walking through the doors of the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church was a life changing experience that I will always cherish and carry with me. As we entered the building, sitting on a chair was a lovely, hard working woman who has risked her life and liberty for the freedom and safety of her own children. Rosa Gutierrez Lopez has been living in the church for a year now, without being able to step outside the confines of the building. As we walked in, Rosa had a broad smile that almost covered her whole face, and as soon as I greeted her in Spanish, she leaned in to give me a kiss on the cheek and a warm hug, one that expressed relief and an instant connection through our Latin American origin. She wore a long black dress that covered her bulky ankle monitor bracelet. The bracelet was forcibly put on her by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017 to track her down .
Rosa fled El Salvador about 14 years ago due to the country's severe violence and escalating political instability. Rosa settled in Fredericksburg,Virginia where she raised her three U.S born children. In 2014, she was given deferred action which allowed her to stay in the U.S legally for a few more years. In 2017 when she went to renew her status, it was refused, and she was told that she had to leave the U.S by December 10, 2018. Rosa felt absolutely hopeless and afraid, until the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church promised to keep her safe by opening its doors and providing her sanctuary.
“I feel absolutely blessed, it is a privilege to be here, and despite the fact that I am unable to leave the church, anything is better than returning to El Salvador,” said Rosa. If she leaves the church she risks being deported to El Salvador.
Rosa has learned to adapt to this new and unique lifestyle, although she admits that it was extremely difficult at first. She has had to rely on her Christian faith to keep her sane, and has also learned to meditate. The church congregation has made sure that Rosa has plenty activities, despite the fact that they all have to take place in such an enclosed space, Rosa enjoys them. She has English classes five days a week, meditation classes on Mondays, yoga classes Tuesdays and Thursdays, and singing lessons with the church choir on Wednesdays. Rosa also loves to cook, and does so frequently because it reminds her of her liberty when she lived in Virginia and worked at an Italian restaurant. She also loves to prepare traditional Salvadoran dishes because she believes it is essential to promote and share her culture through her passion of cooking
Rosa has three children: Maria (12), Juan Pablo (9), and John (7) who has down syndrome. The church congregation was able to transfer her three kids, who previously went to Virginia schools, to Montgomery County schools. Rosa’s kids are now closer to her, and John is receiving an outstanding education plan at his school that helps him with his special needs. “Two days ago I started crying, and thanked God for giving me the blessing to be in this sanctuary with all these caring people. At the end of the day, all that really matters to me is that my children are free and safe,” said Rosa.
Due to her experience, Rosa has become an activist that speaks for refugees living in sanctuaries like herself. In a year Rosa has had over 100 interviews with media organizations like The Washington Post, NPR, and Univision. Rosa hopes that one day she can complete her high school education taking online classes and that she can receive a degree in criminology and forensics. She wants to work in social justice related jobs so she can help Latinos thrive in this country.
On one hand, Rosa is being chased and targeted by the government and by a community that does not believe she should have the right to stay in the country, on the other hand, she is being cared for and protected by the loving and caring community that makes up the Church. Rosa aspires to give hope to Latinos at B-CC that may be going through similar situations because in the DMV area there is a growing amount of churches that are trained and capable of providing sanctuary to Latino immigrants.
This courageous woman wants to send a message to the members of Congress: “I want them to place their hand on their heart, and I ask them that they please review our cases. We are more women who are currently in sanctuaries, so I ask them to put themselves in our shoes or to imagine that a mother, a sister, or a daughter could be going through what we are. We are not criminals, we are human beings. All humans deserve to be heard and all humans deserve rights.”