Nelson Pinos Kicks Off ‘Sanctuary Christmas’

 Nelson Pinos and Jesus Morales Sanchez at the event Thursday. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Nelson Pinos and Jesus Morales Sanchez at the event Thursday. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Nelson Pinos may not be able to celebrate Christmas at home with his wife, daughters, and son this year. So his family—and the activists who have become his extended family—are bringing Christmas to him.

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They gathered Thursday night at First & Summerfield United Methodist Church, where Pinos has been seeking sanctuary from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since the end of November. The second immigrant to take sanctuary at First & Summerfield, he said he does not know how long he’ll have to remain in the church—and will likely miss the holidays at home, unless he is granted a stay in the next eight days. 

That news didn’t fly for members of Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), a local immigrant rights group that just marked its 15th anniversary with back-to-back weekend protests on wage theft and suspect firing of an employee. Earlier this week, members secured a 12-foot “sanctuary tree” that is now on the church's front steps, and went shopping for clear acrylic ornaments, glitter, paint and glue. 

Inviting in members of the community Thursday night, they held a decorating session before stringing the tree with the bulbs, twinkling lights, and foam snowflakes and gingerbread men. A community ‘sanctuary tree lighting’ will take place next Monday at the church.  

With that date a weekend away, attendees sprang to work. In the church’s basement, ornaments hung for Connecticut residents who have fought deportation this year: Derby father Luis Barrios, Norwalk mom Nury Chavarria, sanctuary warrior and Meriden father Marco Reyes, 68-year-old former Fulbright Scholar Sujitno Sajuti and New Britain’s Mariano Cardoso Sr., who is facing deportation Friday Dec. 15.  

ULA member Jesus Morales Sanchez said that the group may add ornaments for Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her family, who took sanctuary in a North Philadelphia church on Wednesday, and for Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a North Carolinian who is fleeing deportation orders in a Durham Church. 

“If Nelson cannot go to his family for Christmas, we are going to bring his family and Christmas to him,” Sanchez said. “It’s [sanctuary congregations] now a national movement.”

As the group grew around two tables, Pinos set up hot coffee, a fruit-studded Panettone, and sweet, sliced conchas crowned with sugar and pink sprinkles. Then he stepped back to watch the flurry of action unfolding around him. From across the room, he waved to arrivals Marco and Fanny Reyes, who are fighting Marco’s deportation orders from home after a Thanksgiving-eve stay. They embraced, murmurings greetings as they peeled off their coats from the cold.    

“Around the holidays, families should be together,” Pinos said, watching his wife and son Brandon make an ornament emblazoned with his name in red paint. “Even if you’re poor, when it comes to a big holiday, when you have your family together, you have everything.”

He recalled Christmases in his native Ecuador almost three decades ago, as his parents gathered his five brothers and six sisters together under one roof. Those may have been the best holidays of his life, he said, because his family was all around him, complete. In the years since he has been in the United States, the number of grandchildren in the family has grown to 50. Except now, they’re not all together. 

“It could have been much worse, you know?” he said. “I’m still able to see the kids, and a lot of nice people are here.”

Back at the table, volunteers were hard at work, speaking in a mix of rapid-fire English and Spanish as a few young kids ran around the room. Blowing carefully with a straw, Fanny Reyes showed student Ambar Santiago Rojas how to spread out paint on the inside of an ornament, adding glitter and decals after the paint was spread thinly enough. Bobbing around the table beside them, Joe Foran finished a Zapatista gingerbread man, and moved on to an ornament. 

Behind him, longtime ULA member Monica Bunton hung another ornament on the string, this time decorated with a wide-beaked bird wearing a black top hat. She said that the process of deportation and crackdowns from ICE officers “has felt different this year, for a number of reasons.”

“The level of inhumanity and the blatant, blatant racism … I feel like there’s nothing redeeming about this administration,” she said. “It’s very dark. Very dark. And then you have tonight—the idea that people work to find love in in these times. You make the space warm. You make it welcoming.”

As he cut a series of butterflies out of yellow cardboard, Marco Reyes echoed those words. 

“I am very happy. I’m home now,” he said. “But you know, it’s very difficult. For me, it was the best solution. If you don’t do this, it’s impossible to stay. But it’s very hard—for the children, for wife. The only thing is faith. To have a lot of faith.”

“This is beautiful—all the people here working for Nelson,” he added. “This is the time to work together. The government right now is very difficult, so this is the time to work together.”