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Maria Chavalan Sut and HandsOffMaria Supporters Offer Thanks and Celebrate

By Rosie Snow, Director of Discipleship, Wesley Memorial UMC

(Charlottesville, VA) — Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has issued a one-year Stay of Removal for Maria Chavalan Sut, an indigenous asylum-seeker from Guatemala. Maria entered sanctuary at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church (WMUMC) at the beginning of October 2018, when ICE sought to enforce her deportation to a country where she fears for her life. The Stay is a formal promise from ICE not to deport Maria for one year, giving her more time to challenge the fairness of her deportation order (issued because Maria did not attend a required July 2017 Immigration Court hearing whose date and time she never received notice of).

At Tuesday night’s Church Council meeting, church leaders began planning a special thanksgiving celebration to celebrate this good news in the near future.

Alina Kilpatrick, Maria’s lawyer, said, “ICE did the right thing granting this Stay. I have faith that President Biden will fix our broken immigration system, including how immigrants receive notice of their court dates. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the legal duty to inform noncitizens of the date and time of their court hearings. Hopefully, the new administration will provide ICE/DHS with the resources they need to follow the law.”

Maria is of course overjoyed by this positive action: “I thank God and I thank each one of the good people in the United States, in Charlottesville, and at WMUMC who received me with generous hearts and continue to support my application for asylum here; I ask God to bless them and attend to their needs as well as mine. After 925 days at the church I can finally step out and enjoy fresh air and the wonders of nature without fear of being deported into the hands of executioners”. The arrival of the Stay in springtime is deeply meaningful to her: “In Guatemala it’s always Spring, there are always flowers blooming and animals and birds being born; today I too feel reborn and renewed! With God, everything is possible.”

The one-year Stay does not end Maria’s daunting legal challenges, but it’s a tremendous step forward that came about largely through the ongoing support for Maria (as seen on the HandsOffMaria Facebook page<>) from WMUMC congregants and Charlottesville community members touched by Maria’s faith and moral courage.

Maury Early, Outreach Chair at Wesley Memorial UMC: “We are so pleased that Maria received the yearlong Stay of Removal. Our faith calls us to open our hearts and hands. We see offering sanctuary to Maria as a ministry of the church, as a journey, as the right thing to do. With the help and compassion of so many from the community, we have been blessed to offer Maria a safe space, prayers, and support, and we’ll continue to do so. Let us hope and work for safety for many.”

WMUMC Pastors Gary Heaton and Phil Woodson offer the following text which directs the churches ministries toward the marginalized: “Matthew 25:35-36: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Rev. Isaac Collins, WMUMC’s pastor at the time of Maria’s arrival, rejoiced at news of the Stay and reflected on the long journey to get to this point: “I first think about her courage and resilience to wait this long. I also think about the congregation’s faithful commitment to the tedious work of justice. Maria brought so many Charlottesville people together when so many of us were broken after A12 [the violence of August 2017].”

Maria’s Story

“I was born in the mountains of Guatemala in 1974, an indigenous Mayan (Kaqchikel) woman. For the last 500 years, since they arrived in 1524, the Europeans have brutally and without compassion deprived surviving Mayan descendants like me of our human rights, devalued us, tried to erase our culture, and tried to take our land. In late 2016, to force me to relinquish my land, they burned my house at 3:30 one morning, with my children and me inside; thank God we were saved. I then had no choice, we fled, and I came to the United States to seek refuge.

My life has been very difficult since presenting myself at the border: I have spent a month in detention, I had to wear an ankle monitor (shackle) every hour of every day, the threat of deportation and death hung over me. Each contact with ICE and its paid contractors is a mental torture; encounters with uniformed and armed men reawaken all the past terrors from my life since childhood, including family members kidnapped and killed or disappeared. And the pandemic has been a second looming anxiety, along with fear of deportation, that has laid heavy on my spirits.

But the creator God loves us all immensely, including me. In 2018 he guided me through dreams to take refuge in Wesley Memorial Church. Here I have the support of so many people that only God knows about them all, and here I continue to press for my freedom. Faith in God guides us.”

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