Juana: Unassuming Heroine in Sanctuary

After four months of living in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, NC, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega still tells me “Tienes que tener fe.” — You have to have faith. As we walk around St. Barnabas, a small Episcopal church in Greensboro, she tells me she’s been reading the book of Isaís in the Old Testament and sewing to pass the days. The parishioners I’ve met while working on a short film about her since she entered sanctuary adore her. They also adore her family of four children and two fourth grader granddaughters, and all say the family has been amazingly gracious in the midst of this struggle. But everyone in the situation knows the best solution would be for her to go home to live again in peace her family, and get back to her work in textiles, a job she had to give up since entering sanctuary.

Still image from SANTUARIO // pilar timpane

One night in September, Christine Merriman, a parishioner, makes phone calls to get out the word about the most recent action that St. Barnabas and the American Friends Service Committee of the Carolinas will take to bring Juana’s story to the public. This Thursday, September 28, three action events will be held simultaneously in Greensboro, Durham, and Winston-Salem to tell ICE and other government organizations to drop the deportation sentences of three people currently living in sanctuary in each relative city. The demonstration for Juana will feature several tombs as a “memorial” service; showing that if she had to return to her home country of Guatemala, it may be as bad as a death sentence.

Christine, one of the parishioners who’s been the most active in Juana’s experience and coordinating the constant stream of protecting volunteers that come through the church each day to be with Juana, gets a few people on the phone, or leaves messages for them in her sweet southern twang. “All three people are living in houses of worship, trying to avoid deportation by ICE. If you’re available we’re meeting right outside the city’s ICE office. Thank you so much.”

Christine also shows me a photo. “I love this picture I took,” she says. It’s a photo of Juana wearing two different color socks and sandals over them, with her giant house arrest bracelet sitting on her ankle. “We were just laughing about those bright socks before she went to bed one night, and there’s her bracelet. That’s so her. She can make the best even in this horrible situation.”

Still image from SANTUARIO // pilar timpane

Juana says she speaks to the other two people, Minerva Cisneros and Jose Chicas, in sanctuary around North Carolina regularly on the phone. She’s heard there may be a fourth more recently, a woman from Mexico, who may also have found sanctuary in Chapel Hill. “We have similar experiences,” she says in Spanish. “It’s a little difficult to be in a sanctuary church, but we have to be strong. It’s hard to be enclosed, you can get bored and sometimes you want to get sad. But we have to go forward.”

Still from SANTUARIO // pilar timpane

I ask her how she feels that the sanctuary movement in North Carolina really took off with her decision to make her home at St Barnabas, so unasuming and not interested in breaking the law in any way. She won’t even remove the chunky ankle bracelet that pulses a red light on it to show it is transmitting her location. “I wasn’t thinking that would happen, but I think if people are in danger [in their home country] or if they have little ones, it’s good to find a church or a place to stay.”

Still from SANTUARIO // pilar timpane

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro has been just that place for Juana. Parishioners like Christine come together to both shelter Juana in whatever way they can and also take to the streets in actions like the ones planned for September 27. “Jesus was pretty darn radical,” says Christine. “I guess what I don’t understand is why we shouldn’t be doing something radical if it’s for the sake of another human being.”

Still image from SANTUARIO // pilar timpane

Leaving St. Barnabas that evening while the last daylight hung in the sky and a slim crescent moon was rising, I was struck as I often am by the idea that Juana is safe, but not free. She always makes clear to me that she’s extremely grateful to be where she is, thankful to see her family on the nights they stay over and spend time with her. But she’s also not libre, not truly free. Her freedom and the freedom of the other people living in sanctuary in North Carolina, now notably the state with the most active sanctuary cases, will be had again when they can return to their homes with their families, without threat of deportation.

SANTUARIO is a forthcoming short documentary directed by Christine Delp and Pilar Timpane. SANTUARIO will be included in Tribeca Film Institute’s If/Then Short Documentary Competition at New Orleans Film Festival in October 2017. It will also be included in the Good Pitch Local event in Durham, NC in October 2017.