The First Parish Sanctuary Project ~ Part 1: From Immigrant to Family Member, Dedication Pays Off

Maria Elena Macario (2nd from right) with First Parish Senior Minister Rev. John Gibbons; Neesha Suarez an aide in Congressman Seth Moulton’s office; Maria Elena Macario; and attorney


After more than three years of protecting an undocumented immigrant who has become part of their family, volunteers at the First Parish Church can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing their work wasn’t in vain.

“Glorious news!” wrote First Parish minister John Gibbons in an email sent to parishioners and volunteers. “This morning, Maria received official confirmation that she has a one-year stay of deportation.”

This means the church’s sanctuary guest, Maria Elena Macario, can get a work permit, pursue further legal options, and move out of the church.

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Although Gibbons said Maria would “not be leaving the church imminently,” he did say that she was looking to find new living quarters with her sons.

“Maria is relieved, overjoyed, and thankful to God and to all who have helped and accompanied her for the last three years,” Gibbons said, as he thanked members of the Sanctuary Coalition.

Maria’s stay of deportation culminates years of dedication, patience, and hard work from the many volunteers who have done so much to protect their sanctuary guest.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, a group of more than 400 dedicated volunteers from 10 local congregations banded together and scheduled around-the-clock shifts at First Parish to watch over Maria.

Now, First Parish has put in-person activities on hold due to Covid. Church services are held virtually, and the church’s minister and custodian are some of the only people who have been inside the building in the past year—besides Maria.

Maria came to First Parish in search of protection from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) more than three years ago. Since then, “she very much became part of our community,” said Judi Curcio, co-chair of the Sanctuary Committee. “She’s got a great sense of humor, she’s a sweetheart.”

Carla Bradford, a frequent volunteer from First Parish, said, “Once Maria came to us, she just is part of our family—the church family.”

Before First Parish stopped offering in-person activities, Maria would regularly attend church services, youth groups, and Friday night pot-luck dinners. She was no stranger to the many volunteers who watched over her, and she often spent her time knitting hats for children in her hometown or cooking for guests at the church.

“She makes a mean guacamole,” Curcio said with a chuckle.

“I think she taught my daughter how to make tortillas,” Bradford added.

“She makes such good use of her time. She’s just not sitting in there feeling bad for herself,” Curcio said. “But she’s tired now—it’s been a long time.”

When First Parish took a vote to decide whether they’d support the concept of the National Sanctuary Movement, none of its parishioners would have guessed their church would eventually serve as home to someone for more than three years—but that’s been just the case.

“Social justice is one of my church’s values,” Bradford said. “The immigration policies in America split up families, and that’s the thing that seems most cruel and unjust to me.”

After voting in favor of supporting the Sanctuary Movement in 2016, a task force was established in September of that same year to decide exactly how First Parish would become part of the movement.

“Were we actually going to offer sanctuary in the building, or were we just going to find another church where we could be a supporting congregation?” Curcio asked, explaining the task force’s thought process.

For the next five months, the task force researched how to become a sanctuary parish, what it would entail, and what physical modifications needed to be done to First Parish in order to house a guest. They also held coffee hours, Q&A sessions, and had meetings after Sunday services to educate the congregation on what it meant to become a sanctuary church.

“It was definitely a learning process,” Curcio said, explaining how the task force had to gain an occupancy permit, notify the town that there would be someone staying at the church, and figure out if insurance would still cover the church with a guest living there.

In April of 2017, 165 parishioners voted in favor of First Parish becoming a sanctuary church—with only one voting against it. Curcio said, “The congregation overwhelmingly supported it.”

This vote also changed the name and function of the Sanctuary Task Force to the Sanctuary Committee.

“When our church made the decision to become a physical sanctuary and ask for volunteers, it seemed like an obvious choice for me to help with that,” Bradford said.

After the congregation approved of becoming a sanctuary church, Curcio said they “kicked it into gear” and immediately held two major fundraisers which generated more than $30,000.

Of the money that was initially raised, $20,000 went to renovating the church. This included upgrades to the electrical system, installation of carbon monoxide detectors, and the conversion of a former classroom on the second floor to a habitable living space, Curcio said.

A shower was installed in the church’s basement, along with a washer and dryer for laundry.  Attached to the makeshift apartment is a small kitchen with a mini-fridge and microwave, although Curcio said that Maria is also allowed to use the church’s main kitchen and refrigerator.

While one group of people set up the apartment and figured out legal logistics, another group was dedicated to finding volunteers.

Phyllis Neufeld, chair of the Social Justice Committee and a volunteer coordinator for Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington, first found out about the Sanctuary Project through a member of the Social Justice Committee at her temple.

“I felt very strongly that the immigrants were not getting a fair shake, that what was happening was tragic, that families were being separated—and it was just so unfair,” Neufeld said. “This was a way for me to get involved and help.”

As a volunteer coordinator for her congregation, Neufeld makes sure information from the Sanctuary Committee gets to members, and she also recruited volunteers when they were needed.

Neufeld said she basically serves as a “go-between” for the Sanctuary Committee and her temple.

Including First Parish, 10 congregations support the Sanctuary Movement. According to Curcio, two are Episcopal churches, two are synagogues, and the other six are Unitarian churches. In addition, a group called “the unaffiliated,” who are not part of a supporting congregation, agreed to support the Sanctuary Movement and volunteer as well.

“One of the main reasons for wanting to involve as many different churches and congregations as we could was because we wanted this to be an interfaith-cooperative measure,” Curcio said.

Judy Cotton, a volunteer coordinator for The Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester, found out about the Sanctuary Project while volunteering at a local soup kitchen. “I think it’s really been a wonderful ecumenical experience—it certainly has been for me,” she said.

As a volunteer coordinator for her congregation, Cotton arranged for all 21 of her parish’s volunteers to be trained and kept track of volunteer schedules.

“I generally try to keep the volunteers organized, and of course I volunteered there myself,” Cotton said.

Each volunteer was required to attend a two-hour training session and get CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) checked, Curcio said.

“We wound up with over 400 volunteers [in total],” Curcio said. “But we didn’t have 400 right away … our first training was [about] 60 people.”

For most of 2017, volunteers were trained on understanding refugee trauma, how to watch over a guest, and what to do in the event ICE showed up at the church, Curcio said.

“The internal memo at ICE basically says that ICE will not enter a church, a hospital, or a school to serve a warrant,” Curcio said. “Unfortunately, as things devolved during the Trump Administration, it became very clear that we couldn’t totally trust that would happen.”

As a result, Curcio said volunteers were trained in what warrants look like and the difference between a judicial warrant and an ICE warrant. According to Curcio, volunteers must respond to a judicial warrant, but not an ICE warrant.

“One of the things that I really remember was they made sure that we understood the difference between a warrant and other legal documents that do not hold the same power,” Bradford said.

Each volunteer also had access to the “sanctuary phone,” which contained important phone numbers on speed dial, including Curcio’s own. “If there was an emergency of any sort, all the volunteer had to do was pick up the phone, hit contacts … and somebody would be at church within five minutes,” Curcio said.

All of this information and more is located in manuals that were distributed to each volunteer and can be found around the church.

By the end of fall 2017, Curcio said “everything was set up” at First Parish, including a process for interviewing prospective sanctuary guests.

First, different organizations would vet and approve prospective guests, then two or three committee members would interview the guests. These committee members would make a recommendation to the rest of the committee, and then board members would vote on the guest.

In November 2017, First Parish had their first and only sanctuary guest—besides Maria—stay for one night only. The next day, this guest was granted asylum and was subsequently able to leave sanctuary.

The second prospective guest who was interviewed ultimately decided he wasn’t ready to go into sanctuary yet.

The third guest interviewed was Maria—who’s called First Parish home since Jan. 5, 2018. “Two members of our Sanctuary Committee drove to her apartment where they watched her say goodbye to her sons and put her bag in the trunk of their car,” Curcio said.

At that point, parishioners were notified there was a guest at First Parish and a virtual volunteer sign-up sheet was created.

“People stepped up to the plate almost immediately” and began volunteering, Curcio said.

Neufeld said, “At the beginning, I was concerned for [Maria], but that dissipated over time.”

Cotton agreed. “I was never worried about myself, but I was always a little tense about whether ICE would come—less so as time wore on.”

Until March of last year, at least one volunteer was present in the church all day, every day, according to Curcio. Typically, volunteers would cycle through four-hour shifts during the day, and one person would stay overnight for an eight-hour shift.

During the day, one volunteer would sit near the church’s office to greet people, while another would sit on the second floor in front of Maria’s apartment. At the end of every shift, volunteers were required to fill out a log-sheet so others could see if there were any concerns, issues, or questions.

“There are over 100 people from First Parish Bedford alone who are signed up as volunteers,” Curcio said—including two parishioners in their 90’s who used to regularly stay overnight at the church.

Although most volunteers were encouraged to cover at least two shifts a month at First Parish, some have gone above and beyond.

Since Maria’s entered sanctuary, “at least six-to-eight” volunteers have offered to tutor her in English, Curcio said. Maria spends anywhere between four and six days a week learning English—which she is now able to speak, read, and write.

For almost three years, Neufeld has been one of the volunteers who tutors Maria in English.

She tutors Maria once a week—via Zoom now—and stressed the fact that she “loves to learn,” saying Maria’s English has improved “greatly.

“It was difficult to understand and communicate at the beginning, and we have conversations all the time now,” Neufeld said.

“Every time” Neufeld and Maria talk, they read a story written in both English and Spanish. “She writes down new words that she hears in English so that she won’t forget them,” Neufeld said.

“[Maria’s] confidence has grown by leaps and bounds,” she added. “Her English has become something to marvel at.”

At first, Bradford said that Maria struck her as “someone who is very below the radar” given her situation. Now, Bradford has noticed that she’s “more forthcoming.

“When we did have in-person services … she will sing for us,” Bradford said. “Maria was often meeting with the youth groups [as well].”

In addition to covering the overnight shifts at First Parish, Bradford also grocery shops for Maria about once every six weeks. She said approximately eight people take turns shopping for her.

The money for Maria’s groceries comes from the sanctuary fund.

In order to support Maria, First Parish has held “at least” three fundraisers to raise money for this fund—the most recent taking place last December, Curcio said.

“Over the course of the time she’s been with us, we’ve raised way over $60,000,” Curcio added.

She explained how it’s been tough for Maria to rely upon the volunteers since she’s “a very proud woman” who once worked multiple jobs and supported herself. “She always feels like she needs to repay us for what we’ve done,” Curcio said.

Neufeld agreed. “She is such a kind, appreciative, loving soul—one of the best people I know. And I love the time I spend with her. “My heart breaks for the amount of time she’s had to spend separated from others,” she added.

Bradford imagined how difficult it must be for Maria to be away from her family for so long and have to deal with the “ambiguity” of her situation.

“It’s a velvet trap because it’s a trap that’s meant to make her safe—but she doesn’t leave,” Bradford added.

Cotton said, “[Maria] seems much more relaxed than I would be if I was inside for three years.”

The farthest Maria is able to venture from her apartment is to the church’s garden—which is surrounded by a fence.

This is because it’s unclear “what part of the church constitutes the sanctuary,” Curcio said. Without knowing if the church itself or the property around it is considered sanctuary space, volunteers were careful to watch Maria whenever she went outside.

“If she went out to garden, one of the volunteers’ responsibilities was to stand at the door she would go out and just watch the street,” Curcio said.

Volunteers had to anticipate the worst while also ensuring Maria’s comfort and safety.

“She used to say to me that she never felt as safe as she did with us in that church,” Curcio said. “That’s an amazing thing—she’s spent over 20 years in this country. “This is probably some of the most fulfilling work that most of us have ever done,” she added.

Curcio called the volunteers “extraordinary” people. “It was amazing to watch people of different faith communities, people from different towns [come together],” she said.

Neufeld added, “It brought the individual congregations together, as well as bringing the whole community together.”

According to Curcio, the volunteers will not return until there’s a way to safely bring people back into the church.

“What I miss the most about pulling shifts at sanctuary is meeting people from the other congregations,” Bradford said. “It was really nice to share stories and just get to know some other people outside of my own little small town.”

Cotton said she particularly enjoyed the few dinners that she attended for the same reason.

“It was interesting to meet other volunteers in a social situation, and of course [Maria] was there preparing food … it’s been a great experience,” Cotton said.

To keep in touch with Maria during the pandemic, each supporting congregation is designated a specific week to send her greeting cards.

“It’s not the same as it was when there are lots of people, lots of activity … so I’m sure it’s very different for her than it was a year ago,” Bradford said.

“She seems very social and I think she does miss the large number of people who would come and socialize with her,” Bradford continued.

Curcio said her ultimate goal is to have a party where volunteers can chat and celebrate with Maria when she’s finally “on her way to citizenship.”

Neufeld said she just wants Maria to be free.

“She has to make a choice every day to stay in that church,” Curcio said. “It’s been quite an experience—I just hope to hell this is the last time anybody has to go through it.”

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Anita Feld
March 16, 2021 3:41 am

This story is very inspiring. It sounds like the beginning of the American Dream. Best wishes to Maria on her journey.

Linda Kovtich
March 14, 2021 1:52 pm

Many thanks to all of you who put yourselves forward to help someone in need. Our country’s immigration policies are punitive and unfair. They require a major overhaul with respect, caring and empathy to be added where ever possible. As someone who has volunteered in several Central and South American countries, I have seen first hand how difficult and dangerous life is for those who live there. It’s easy to appreciate why so many wish to flee to safer places for their families. It’s comforting to read about how much caring went into keeping Maria safe. It is a small victory which I hope will help reform our immigration system to make it fairer and more equitable as well as respectful of those in search of a better and safer life.

Deb Picciuto
March 13, 2021 9:34 am

This shows how to put the saying “act locally, think globally” in to practice. First Parish and the other parishes and volunteers understood this concept. So grateful for the work of all to achieve this result.

March 12, 2021 11:04 am

Incredible and very moving story. I’m so heartened by what Maria and volunteers have done over such a long time. Thank you!

Linda Pollitz
March 9, 2021 10:44 pm

Great article!

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