Sanctuary

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Father Jack Podsiadlo tends the community garden behind Sacred Heart Center as he talks. @Sunny Lim

By Sunny Lim

It was three o’clock on a weekday afternoon, but the doors of the Sacred Heart Center and its sister church across the street were padlocked shut.

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Sacred Heart’s brand new security system. @Sunny Lim

After I pressed the button on the security panel next to the door, our reporting team waited for someone inside to respond. Minutes later, a buzzer sounded, the door unlocked, and we entered a place of Sanctuary.

People once passed freely through these doors, said Father Jack Podsiadlo of the Sacred Heart Church. But after President Trump’s recent executive orders on immigration, followed by a nationwide crackdown by agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Sacred Heart staff locked their doors for the first time.

The reason why is simple. Sacred Heart primarily serves Latino immigrants living in Richmond’s Jefferson Davis Corridor, a long, slender area of concrete roadways, cheap apartments, and abandoned warehouses that encompasses one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Thousands of recent immigrants from Latin America call Jeff Davis home. The Center shelters them, feeds them, unites them. No questions asked.

With outstretched hands, Father Jack explained the fear behind those padlocks.

Terrified by ICE’s crackdown, “people are afraid of driving because they might get snatched by police,” he said. “They’ve even stopped coming to our English classes at night.” The locks were added to the doors, he said, after reports spread of illegal raids by ICE agents posing as Richmond City police.

“Churches are considered sanctuaries. But we’re getting reports of some ICE officials pounding on church doors, seizing people. This hasn’t happened here—yet—but it’s an anxious time.”

Fear haunts the Latino community in Richmond. The fear of being separated from their families, the fear of being deported back to the war zones they originally fled, the fear of being evicted from their homes.

In times like these, prayer helps, and the Sacred Heart staff placed praying cards on their reception desk, alongside the row of plastic containers with business cards of Latino restaurants, small businesses, and attorneys. The praying cards displayed a picture of a saint, Oscar Romero, and a prayer referencing this beloved priest who was murdered by death squads in El Salvador in 1980:

Loving God,

Give us the strength,
to be humble,
to be faithful,
to stand with our
sisters and brothers.

Give us the strength,
to be like our
brother Oscar,
completely committed
to Christ.

Blessed Oscar Romero,
Pray for Us.

Amen.

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Saint Oscar Romero: a martyr. @Sunny Lim

As these lines echoed in my mind, I felt the power of the faith that they expressed: a sense of endurance that echoed in the hallways of the Sacred Heart. For the time being, I felt a tug of hope and slipped one of the cards into my backpack.

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