Church provides solace to immigrants in time of fear

Araceli Nunez says she sometimes feels afraid: Afraid that she’ll be deported, that she’ll be separated from her children, that a simple action like driving could end up with her arrest.

When she’s at church each Sunday, worshipping alongside a handful of other Hispanic immigrants, she says she feels at peace.

“You can feel here a freedom,” Nunez said. “I don’t feel judged here. I feel like I can be myself. I’m not perfect, but still God is with me. I feel like a family here, comfortable.”

The parishioners at Mision San Juan de Dios in Planeview come from different countries and have different immigration statuses. Some, like Nunez, are undocumented. Others are legal residents or citizens. Some are in the United States legally but have friends and family who are not.

Pastoring a congregation of immigrants during a time of heightened anxiety isn’t always easy for the Rev. Ivan Gonzalez, who started the congregation four years ago through a partnership between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the United Methodist Great Plains Conference.

Abrasive rhetoric about immigration and increased arrests and deportations have impacted his church, says Gonzalez, who is originally from El Salvador and received his U.S. citizenship in 2011.

Some immigrants have moved away to be closer to family in a difficult time, he said. Some tithe less, since they’re saving up money in case they need an attorney.

He’s heard many stories: The story of the woman whose abusive husband threatens to report her to Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the woman who was deported, leaving behind an older daughter to care for her younger children; the mother who voluntarily returned to Mexico because of immigration pressure, then missed her American daughter’s wedding.

Sometimes being a pastor to the Planeview congregation means writing a reference letter for a man picked up by ICE. Sometimes it means taking congregants to meetings with their attorneys, Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez also wants the facility, which hosts a Methodist church Sunday mornings and also has a clothing closet, to be welcoming on days other than Sunday. When he first started the mission, he tried offering cooking classes, English classes and baking classes, but nothing was successful.

Then, he tried Zumba classes — and they took off. Now, the building hosts Zumba every week and is used for potlucks and quinceaneras.

Brenda Perez, one of the church’s members, said there’s rising discrimination against Hispanic immigrants in the United States. Although she is a U.S. citizen, she knows others who are afraid to go to restaurants or stores for fear of being picked up by ICE.

She doesn’t think ICE would come into a church, though.

“I just feel safe,” she said. “We just want a better life for ourselves and for our children. It doesn’t matter what color we are or where we come from.”

Although it is a source of support for immigrants, the church is struggling, its members say.

Some Sundays bring together more than 30 people for events like a baptism, but on other Sundays attendance dwindles to just a handful of families.

Gonzalez has taken a second job, working as a chaplain at Wesley Medical Center to support himself. The Lutheran Church has promised support to the church for another year, but the future is uncertain. In Planeview, families often move, so even those dedicated to the church might not stay long. Other supporters have passed away.

He’s also lost members to fears about immigration, Gonzalez said, or even due to arrests by ICE.

Maria Mendoza started attending the church “by accident” when she brought clothes to the second-hand clothing store and was invited back to Sunday services. She is originally from Mexico, but has lived in Wichita for 11 years and is a U.S. resident. The church, she said, is like a family.

“It doesn’t matter that she’s born over here,” Mendoza said, motioning to Perez, “or in Mexico. Our roots come from the same place, so we have to be together so they cannot make us break apart.”

On a recent Sunday, the church bustled with activity as Gonzalez baptized a young boy. Other children played in the pews, or lined up to help carry the communion elements and offering basket up to the front.

Every day is busy for Gonzalez as he balances between working for the hospital, caring for his parishioners and scheduling quinceaneras to keep the building active.

It’s all worth it, he says.

“I am in love with this place,” Gonzalez said. “Maybe because this is the first time I’ve begun a community. Now they know me.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @kathsburgess.