Seeking Sanctuary: Charlottesville Church Provides Protection for Guatemalan Refugee

Maria Chavalan Sut sought asylum in 2015. However, she's lived in a Charlottesville church since 2018.

By Amie Knowles

December 21, 2020

A problem with paperwork caused Maria Chavalan Sut to be labeled as undocumented. Now she’s living in a church to avoid ICE.

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Maria Chavalan Sut did what upwards of 300 million others did on Monday. She logged into a Zoom conference.

However, the indigenous Guatemalan woman wasn’t video calling with family or friends. She wasn’t simply catching up with a group of neighbors she hadn’t seen since the pandemic started.

Chavalan Sut sat in a Sunday school classroom in Charlottesville, expressing through words, smiles and tears why she wanted to stay there. To live there.  To worship amongst the church pews of a denomination of which she did not practice.

Joining her online were four other individuals she’s come to know since she fled her country in 2015, amidst a Guatemalan civil war: an associate pastor, a director of Christian discipleship, a lawyer and an interpreter.

She didn’t meet those individuals immediately. No, it took a few years and a big scare for their paths to cross.

In medias res

The year was 2018. That’s when Chavalan Sut, who passed the credible fear test at the border three years before and performed weekly check-ins with immigration officials in Richmond, missed a court date. The singular misunderstanding – as the letter requesting her presence in court arrived in only English, which she could not read – quickly changed the course of her life.

Within two weeks, Chavalan Sut faced immediate eviction from the country for the offense. In merely 14 days, she could find herself back in the country she fled from – back to the same area where people burned her house to the ground and she lost everything.

She’d already tried moving around from place to place in Guatemala before fleeing to the United States. Doing so again wasn’t a viable option.

Leading up to Chavalan Sut’s imminent deportation, a friend called multiple churches, asking for their help.

Traditionally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials don’t enter places considered sensitive to perform deportation acts. Religious centers like churches, synagogues and mosques fall under that caveat.

One church, located approximately an hour away, answered the call – Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville.

Divine timing for Chavalan Sut

As deportation grew neigh, Chavalan Sut did not lose hope. A dream helped quell her fears, even when the situation seemed hopeless from an outside perspective.

“Through a dream, God told her that she was not, that it was not her time yet. That she was not to die,” said Esther Poveda, interpreter. “And through a dream, she had knowledge and through a way, of the church, of Wesley Memorial and the sanctuary. She had a vision of it.”

Before Chavalan Sut’s plea reached Wesley Memorial’s doors, the church discussed helping the immigrant population in a variety of ways.

“We did that because we felt, as Christians, it’s an obvious part of our faith, to welcome the immigrant and to generally just provide welcome and safety for those who need it,” said Rosie Snow, Wesley Memorial’s director of Christian discipleship.

Associate pastor Phil Woodson also touched on the church’s calling to help those facing struggles larger than themselves.

“Our faith calls us to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed, marginalized and in danger in a lot of ways. And so that means we focus on a lot of mutual support for people and members of our community, and we stand with them to protect and fight for their dignity and their rights, for each of these people,” Woodson said. “And as part of our baptismal covenant, we affirm God’s call to reject and resist the evils of this world. You know, in whatever forms that they present themselves. Resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms.”

That’s why when Chavalan Sut sought asylum within the church’s doors two years ago, they opened for her.

A different lens

Ironically, Chavalan Sut doesn’t practice the same faith traditions as the church where she resides. While the church practices Methodism, Chavalan Sut practices Catholicism.

Both faiths are branches of Christianity. They both believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and have other similarities. However, they also have striking theological differences.

Neither Chavalan Sut nor Wesley Memorial let those differences divide them. Instead, they created ways to celebrate holy traditions together.

“In the Catholic church, if you’re not married through the church, you cannot have Communion rite when you go to Mass. And for many years, she didn’t,” Poveda interpreted. “But this church didn’t, you know, take that away from her. And that was something she very much needed, to have that Communion with God in that form. This is something she has been able to get back through this church and has brought her a lot of happiness.”

Chavalan Sut expressed that her Christian denomination isn’t the only defining factor of her spirituality as an indigenous Guatemalan. 

“The Catholic religion was imposed on us and our ancestors accepted it as a way to save their lives, but deep inside of us, there [are] ways of knowing and being in this world that have to do with our own cosmovision,” Chavalan Sut said.

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Differences don’t define

The theological differences didn’t matter to Woodson. Chavalan Sut’s circumstances did.

“All people are created in the image of God,” Woodson said. “Maria is Catholic, so no, there are no requirements for receiving help and assistance in terms of other faith traditions.”

The church’s outlook relieved Chavalan Sut shortly after she sought asylum there.

“When she first arrived, she had a fear of being Catholic, or that the faith of this church would be imposed on her again, like you know, another imposition, but that never happened,” Poveda interpreted. “This is an open and respectful church that welcomes everyone.”

When COVID-19 struck Virginia in March, like other churches across the commonwealth, Wesley Memorial closed down. However, Chavalan Sut stayed put. While others couldn’t enter the church, she still couldn’t leave.

“I mean, it’s definitely changed logistics,” Snow said. “It’s increased isolation for everyone, and I think Maria feels that as well.”

Chavalan Sut already practiced most of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order guidelines well before the virus ever took hold. Instead, she focused on another threat outside of the church doors.

“ICE is, in a way, another virus that has been among us, that stops us from being able to go out, go to the store, to go with and be with other people and it attacks our feelings and our emotions. But we are resisting,” Chavalan Sut said. “We have a situation that is doubly difficult, or difficult in a double way. On the one hand, there is COVID out there, but also ICE is out there and we need to seek protection from ICE too.”

A financial fright

Since Chavalan Sut stepping outside of the church wasn’t a likely option, ICE switched their game. In 2019, they fined Chavalan Sut $214,000 for remaining in the states illegally.

Chavalan Sut’s lawyer, Alina Kilpatrick, fought the legal battle.

“Maria is one of six women who are living in sanctuary whom ICE chose to attempt to fine,” Kilpatrick said. “The first time they tried, the money they were seeking was over $200,000 for Maria, but we were able to get that dismissed through a legal challenge, but then they tried again.”

Currently, the legal situation hangs in limbo – but only for Chavalan Sut. The other women Kilpatrick represents have already received their legal decisions about the fine.

Despite reaching out twice, Kilpatrick has yet to hear the results of Chavalan Sut’s case.

Living in isolation without a source of income, there’s no feasible way Chavalan Sut could pay the large fine.

Hope prevails

Even in the face of chronic isolation due to the pandemic and seeking continued asylum, Chavalan Sut still has hopes, dreams and aspirations.

“My main aspiration, my main objective is to be able to be free,” Chavalan Sut said. “To be able not to be chased and persecuted by other people.”

The people at Wesley Memorial expressed hope for the same.

“One way we really want to support Maria this year is to keep momentum for her campaign with others who are in sanctuary, the Sanctuary Collective, who are trying to get the attention of the [Joe] Biden administration to take steps to liberate all those who are in sanctuary, including Maria,” Snow said. “We believe that if there’s enough grassroots support, we will get their attention. And so we hope all people of faith, particularly those who read the Bible and know what it says about welcoming immigrants, especially at this time of year, their hearts will be warmed and they will put their support behind Maria and others in sanctuary as well.”

For those interested in showing their support or providing resources for undocumented immigrants seeking or living in sanctuary, Snow suggested looking into the National Sanctuary Collective.

Another organization, T’ruah, has a sanctuary network movement called Mikdash. The organization’s New Sanctuary Movement is a coalition of hundreds of immigrant and faith-based organizations that works to protect and defend immigrants in the United States, especially those at risk for arrest and deportation.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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