‘Sanctuary Tree’ Lights Up The Night

 Pinos' wife, holding their son Brandon: Thank you so much. Kelly and Nelson Pinos pictured in back. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Pinos' wife, holding their son Brandon: Thank you so much. Kelly and Nelson Pinos pictured in back. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Open borders. Safe neighborhoods, where immigration raids don’t factor into plans for playing outside or going to school. No more Christmases away from home.

Those were just some of the community’s asks Monday evening, at a ‘sanctuary tree’ lighting at First & Summerfield United Methodist Church on College and Elm Streets. As news spread that Melecio Andazola Morales, father of Yale student Viviana Andazola Marquez, had been deported in Colorado, close to 40 community members, activists and grassroots organizers gathered at the church, forming a huddle around the tree and spilling out onto the building’s front steps. 

 Pinos: "For us, Christmas starts today." Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Pinos: "For us, Christmas starts today." Lucy Gellman Photo. 

The lighting is largely in honor of Nelson Pinos, an immigrant from Ecuador who has been seeking sanctuary at the church since Nov. 30 and will likely not be able to celebrate Christmas with his family at home. Last week, members of Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA) constructed decorations for the tree, stringing it with Anarchist penguins, glittery Zapatista gingerbread men, and ornaments for several Connecticut immigrants who have fled and fought Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) this year.    

“This moment is a time to give a message of hope,” said ULA founder John Lugo, speaking in Spanish with Jesus Morales Sanchez translating. “Hope, because that’s the last thing that dies when someone seeks sanctuary in a building, and comes inside. We still have the hope that we can come inside and reunite as a community.”

“When we thought about bringing this little tree … we didn’t think of it as a typical Christmas tree as a matter of consumerism,” he added, “For that reason, we called it the sanctuary tree. It represents the struggle that we’ve been pushing through for the last year.”

As the group passed candles around, Lugo asked community members if anyone wished to speak. There with his wife and children, Pinos stepped forward. His face glowed a warm orange in the light of the candle.

 The lighting followed last week's ornament decoration inside the church. Lucy Gellman Photo.  

The lighting followed last week's ornament decoration inside the church. Lucy Gellman Photo.  

“It’s something very special for me, for my family, for the community, as this Christmas it looks like we’re not going to be able to celebrate at home with my family,” he said. “For us, Christmas starts today, by lighting this tree. This tree of hope—hope not only for me, but for everyone that’s currently going through this situation. Hope for people like Marco [Reyes], and everyone that is currently fighting their case.”

“I just want to say thank you,” added his eldest daughter, Kelly. “It means a lot that you actually came here. Even though we can’t spend our Christmas at home, at least we can spend it here, because of you guys and your support. And it means a lot.”

Slowly, members of the wider community stepped out of the woodwork to speak, holding their candles gingerly as not to set anything on fire. One young woman said that she had come because the day, with Morales’ deportation, had left her feeling especially vulnerable, as though “this could happen to my family” at any moment. 

Joelle Fishman, chair of the Connecticut Communist Party, offered “love and solidarity to Nelson and his family. We are one.”

Marco Reyes who is now fighting deportation orders from his home, told the group that it pains him greatly to see “a comrade, a friend” in the same situation he found himself in from August through November. 

Community activist Barbara Fair piped up from the back. In the past year, she too has waged a battle with the city’s legal system, and been a longtime advocate for families in New Haven. 

“I came here today because for me family is everything,” she said. “To hear the pain, or to see the pain, of thinking that your family could be separated—it is just heartbreaking. And so, I’m hoping that America, which seems to have lost its community, will one day restore it. And that all of the people that they [the government] would like to separate and take out of this country, that they will realize this is God’s land. This is for all of us.“ 

 Reyes' daughter Evelyn, speaking to the Pinos family: "I know how important it is to have your parents home." Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Reyes' daughter Evelyn, speaking to the Pinos family: "I know how important it is to have your parents home." Lucy Gellman Photo. 

As community members wrapped up remarks and blew out their candles, Lugo flipped the switch to illuminate the tree, ornaments springing to life with twinkling white lights. Someone broke into Christmas carols, the group switching quickly from English to Spanish.

“Feliz navidad, Feliz navidad, Feliz navidad, Prospero año y felicidad,” they began. Then the lyrics switched up. “Feliz navidad, Feliz navidad, Feliz navidad, Sanctuario y felicidad.”

ULA member Joe Foran pressed on.

“New Haven’s a sanctuary, New Haven’s a sanctuary, New Haven’s a sanctuary, from the bottom of our hearts.”

To watch our Facebook live coverage of the event, click on the video below: