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Culture & Conversation Immigration

In Sanctuary, Some Immigrant Families Cook for Joy and Survival

Tina Vasquez

Two families taking sanctuary at a church in Philadelphia host a monthly fundraising dinner to help cover their mounting expenses—"and it gives the community something to enjoy," one family member said.

View photos of the sanctuary fundraising dinner here.

In the days leading up to the last Friday of the month, volunteers and family members scramble to get Clive and Oneita Thompson everything they need to cook. Some of the bulk items⁠—oil, chicken, flour, and spices⁠—come from nearby supermarkets, while the specialty items⁠—like coconut milk powder, goat, and pumpkin soup mix⁠—come from local Caribbean markets.

For the monthly fundraising dinner, Clive handles the proteins, so some of his labor begins on Thursdays when he preps the chicken and marinates the oxtail and goat. But the real work begins on Fridays at 5 a.m. Bleary-eyed, the couple scurries into the cramped basement kitchen of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia and spends 12 hours cooking alongside Suyapa Reyes, a Honduran immigrant.

The families cook as if their lives depend on it—and they kind of do. Well, their livelihoods do at least. This is how they have kept themselves afloat financially while taking sanctuary in the church to avoid deportation.

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Nationwide, almost 50 people are in sanctuary, and like Oneita and Clive, many of these people have deep roots in the United States. But what’s less reported are the practicalities of sanctuary. How do immigrants eat, access supplies they need, maintain their former households, and continue to support their children while living in a church?

When Clive, Oneita, and their two youngest U.S. citizen children, Christine and Timothy, entered sanctuary in August 2018, becoming the first Black family with a public sanctuary case, they left behind their home, jobs, and mounting bills. The family had come to the United States from Jamaica in 2004 and built a life for themselves and their seven children in New Jersey. But last summer, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gave them eight days to leave the country under a deportation order. Needless to say, creditors have shown no concern that Clive and Oneita are living in a church to avoid facing death in Jamaica. So the couple has had to figure out how to generate income.

After two months at the church, the couple worked with Reyes, who they share living quarters with and who entered sanctuary on the same day, to develop a monthly community dinner. The idea for the dinner is simple: Members of the public pay $15 to eat homemade food at the church’s fellowship hall, and the proceeds go to the families, with some of the funds recycled to pay for groceries for the next dinner.

“At first it was not a lot of people coming,” Clive told Rewire.News in March, as he checked the curry chicken for the night’s community dinner. “Then it just started to grow—120 people, then 160, then 180. We want to get to 500.” The family is hoping about 180 show up this Friday.

With the help of their oldest kids, Oneita and Clive have gotten by on the contributions from the fundraising dinner to help cover about $1,570 in monthly expenses, which doesn’t include ongoing legal fees. With two of them fighting deportation orders, the Thompsons’ legal expenses are double. And with two teenagers in school, the family is beginning to worry about how they will pay for items like clothing and supplies as the new school year approaches.

There are endless unexpected expenses that can pile up, from which the fundraising dinner provides a small amount of relief. For a few days a month, the family can set these worries aside to focus on food preparation that they know will generate the income they need.

From their respective corners of the kitchen, Reyes and the Thompsons knocked out a stunning array of food for March’s dinner: spaghetti; empanadas; deviled eggs, or as Oneita calls them, “Jesus eggs”; pigeon peas and rice; beans and rice; homemade tortillas; fried plantains; stewed cabbage; Honduran enchiladas; and a giant pot of a Thompson family favorite, chicken pumpkin soup, which includes homemade dumplings painstakingly rolled into perfect little balls by Oneita. Of course, there were also all of the meats Clive lovingly prepared—curry chicken, baked chicken, brown stew chicken, curry goat, and oxtail.

At each dinner, guests can top off their dinner with a glass of Oneita’s sweet Jamaican sorrel, made from hibiscus flowers, and a hunk of her daughter’s Jamaican bread pudding, the proceeds of which, minus expenses, are donated to organizations helping immigrant children at the border.

Suyapa Reyes preparing food for March’s fundraising dinner in the basement kitchen of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia. (Marc Faletti for Rewire.News)

Sometimes the families cook in silence, sometimes they chat with each other, communicating with the help of a translation app on Oneita’s phone, as Reyes only speaks Spanish. Clive and Oneita work across a table from each other, joking, talking, and sussing out the order in which the food will go out. Reyes will sometimes randomly break into song in between cooking and fretting whether she’ll be done in time. When her youngest child appears with a church volunteer, running toward her with wobbly legs and a giant grin, Reyes’ face changes. Her brow unfurrows, her jaw loosens. It’s a look of pure joy as her son hops into her arms and Reyes positions him on her hip in one fell swoop, never breaking her stride at the stove, flipping her perfectly griddled tortilla just in time.

One family from Jamaica, another from Honduras, they’ve developed a sort of symbiosis despite the endlessly weird circumstances they find themselves in. As Oneita says: Who could have ever anticipated they would end up here together?

No Longer Self-Reliant

The hustle the Thompsons have developed with Reyes isn’t unheard of for families in sanctuary. Many immigrants have to think of creative ways to generate income, and it’s a bonus if it distracts them from their cases. For example, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, a Guatemalan immigrant who has been in sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, for two years, embroiders pillows and linens, makes tote bags, and sometimes even tailors clothing. It’s a small yet reliable income source.

Immigrants in sanctuary often have online fundraising pages and rely heavily on volunteers in the church’s congregation for food, supplies, and other donations, though not all contributions go directly to the family unless they are addressed to them. But it’s usually the family of the person in sanctuary who takes on the brunt of financial responsibility, filling in the gaps, making every dollar stretch.

In 2018, Minerva Garcia, a Mexican immigrant and the mother of three based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was forced to take sanctuary for 96 days. She has since been granted residency, allowing her to remain in the United States without fear of deportation. But while Garcia lived at Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro with her two young sons, she relied on the support of strangers to perform crucial tasks, like taking one of her sons to school and providing food. Garcia also had to depend on her eldest son, Eduardo, who was 21 at the time and who is blind due to complications from cancer. While his mother was in sanctuary, Eduardo had to get rides from family and friends to and from his job to pay the rent on their mobile home.

“I was a very independent person my whole life, so it was so hard for me to rely on everyone just to live,” Garcia told Rewire.News in April. “I felt so embarrassed, but I had to ask for help to get what I needed.”

Much like Garcia, Oneita and Clive are relying on their older children for help in ways that make them uncomfortable. Clive Jr., 21, put his studies at a local college aside to work full time at a local factory, where his pay goes toward the mortgage on the family’s New Jersey home.

“When everything happened, I had to find a job really quick to help pay the bills,” Clive Jr. told Rewire.News. “I’m living in the house alone, and the majority of my day goes to working, just trying to help out and maintain the house. The fundraisers help pay for things, but there’s a lot of gaps to fill along the way, and that’s where I come in.”

Clive Jr. finds the situation his family finds itself in “very stressful.” Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about it, and some days it’s all he thinks about, he said.

“Our whole family has to take this day by day. This is definitely not where I want to be in my life right now, but I also know it’s not where my parents want to be in their life right now. None of us want this. We all just have to step up and fill their shoes for the time being,” Clive Jr. said.

Shannakay, 23, works long hours as a nurse but helps support her parents and visits them as much as she can. She told Rewire.News that the “financial piece” of her parents’ time in sanctuary has been one of the most stressful parts of the ordeal. Clive and Oneita have come to rely on the community dinners to generate income because they’re uncomfortable asking for donations.

“I’ve never known my parents not to work. They’ve always been self-sufficient and work very hard to get what they have,” Shannakay said. “My mother has always been a giver, and my dad has always been a hard worker. The fundraiser is like their way of working for the help they need, and it gives the community something to enjoy.”

“Love in the Food”

Every Thursday night before the monthly community dinner, Clive and Oneita pray and then fast until Friday evening, when they eat alongside the people who have shown up to support them. Even as the divine smells of the food waft through the air in the church all day long, Oneita and Clive say they are not tempted to eat. The work they do with their hands, the food they are producing, becomes its own prayer.

“The food becomes pure love,” Oneita said. “And I think this devotion makes the food taste better. The people will taste the love in the food, and the fasting shows the faith that we have.”

As the time nears for the community to begin piling into the church, the families move swiftly to get everything ready. Clive is dashing up and down stairs finishing the food while also decorating the fellowship hall. On each table, he places a glass vase that holds both a Jamaican and Honduran flag. Along the stage, he places a series of signs that say things like, “Love has no borders,” and “No human is illegal!” He blasts what he calls “Jamaican music,” to “set the mood” for the dinner, which he views as a celebration of community.

Oneita Thompson leading the community in prayer at March’s fundraising dinner. (Marc Faletti for Rewire.News)

Clive told Rewire.News all he can think about now is getting the food out and digging into a steaming bowl of Oneita’s chicken pumpkin soup. It’s all he wants to eat, he said.

Back in the kitchen, and with a giant mound of masa next to her, Reyes slaps individual balls of corn dough flat onto a sheet of plastic, shaping them into perfect rounds before filling them with rice and meat and individually deep frying them because there are no more burners to spare. Her teenage daughter, now back from school, settles in to assemble the enchiladas, topping tostadas with meat, lettuce, cheese, boiled egg, and a sauce made out of ketchup and mayonnaise.

After the volunteers arrive and begin running the food upstairs, the Reyes and Thompson families disappear into their living corridors. Meanwhile, guests fill the hall, mingle, anxiously peek at the food, and eventually form lines in anticipation of the feast. A few minutes before it’s time to eat, Clive, Oneita, and Reyes reappear. Gone are the house slippers, t-shirts, and sweatpants they labored in—smelling of fried food and onions—replaced by their Sunday best. Oneita and Clive greet members of their family and community, cheerful and smiling, as if they didn’t just spend the last 12 hours cooking on empty stomachs.

Oneita eventually takes the stage, thanks everyone for coming, and leads the community in prayer. Afterward, it’s hard to keep track of the families. They float around the room, and there are people everywhere, wanting to talk to the families, eat with them, and compliment them on the food.

In a rare moment alone, Clive stands in the corner, hungrily spooning Oneita’s chicken pumpkin soup into his mouth as he looks around the room at all of the people who have come to support his family.

“This makes it all worth it,” he said. “This is why we labor.”

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