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Yvonne Abraham

At a Chelsea church in age of Trump, story of Mary and Joseph hits home

Katherine and Oscar Rodriguez carried a statue of Mary and Joseph during a celebration of Las Posadas in Chelsea.Michael Swensen for The Boston Globe

CHELSEA — For worshipers at San Lucas Episcopal Church, the last two years have been just as painful as they feared.

I visited with parishioners before Christmas in 2016, just after Donald Trump rode to victory in large part by claiming Central American immigrants, like those who make up most of this congregation, are to be reviled and turned away. The members of San Lucas were hurt, fearful of what lay ahead, and seeking comfort in their church.

Two years later, President Trump has made good on many of his promises. And mobilizing his base by demonizing those desperately seeking refuge on our southern border is still his central — his only — strategy. He has demeaned Hispanic immigrants, caged their children, narrowed their already-narrow paths to freedom. He has held this country hostage, shutting down the government in an attempt to force American taxpayers to fund a useless wall to keep desperate immigrants out.

All of it falls heavily upon the shoulders of the men and women who gathered in a living room on Cherry Street on a recent rainy evening. It was the first night of Las Posadas (The Inns) — nine nightly processions leading up to Christmas that reenact the journey of Joseph and Mary, mother of Jesus, who were far from home and in desperate need of refuge none was willing to give.

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Gathered in the house of parishioner Suyapa Perez, members of San Lucas and a church in Milton prayed together in English and Spanish and, accompanied by a guitar and maracas, sang Spanish carols “The Little Donkey” and “The Fishes in the River,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Bishop Gayle Harris, who joined the group, spelled out the symbolism — even more painfully obvious this year than when she visited two years ago.

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“I am embarrassed and horrified by some of the actions of this country against immigrants,” she said. “How dare we turn our backs and close our doors on immigrants. If we’re doing that, we’re closing the door on Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.”

The smell of huge piles of tamales Perez and her family prepared filled the room, which was warm and crowded. Perez and others at San Lucas were grateful that so many people had ventured out.

Attendance at San Lucas dropped off after Trump’s inauguration. The president’s rhetoric, and his crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, had made some parishioners afraid to come even to church, worried that they could be arrested. Services that might have drawn 60 worshipers in 2016 were seeing half that number in 2018.

“They are living in seclusion,” said Edgar A. Gutiérrez-Duarte, the vicar at San Lucas. “The level of anxiety and fear has increased.”

Even as his flock gathers to prepare for this holy Christian holiday, hundreds of thousands of others — many of them presumably Christian — have contributed to a Go Fund Me campaign called “We The People will Fund the Wall,” donating their own money to pay for what has become Trump’s longed-for monument to cruelty. It is but the latest assault in a cynical campaign against those fleeing impossible circumstances. And it is exhausting.

Perez, who hosted the posada, is pained by the relentlessness of it all.

“Just as a human, I feel so embarrassed by what is happening now,” she said in Spanish, as a fellow parishioner translated. “This is supposed to be ‘one nation, under God.’ People don’t understand these are human beings, and they have pain.”

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Perez, 56, fled Honduras in 1999 after receiving death threats for her work as a union and women’s rights activist. After her two small children were abducted (and eventually returned) by those out to terrify her, she came to the United States on a visa, then won political asylum.

She sees herself in the faces of those waiting at the border, fleeing their own persecutions, by political opponents, or gangs, or circumstances that make it impossible to feed their children. And she barely recognizes the country that took her in.

“When I first came here, I used to feel very free,” she said. “If I had fear, it was just imaginary, because of what had happened to me in Honduras. But now, in this moment, I have a really, really deep fear again.”

That fear drove Perez to become a US citizen as soon as she was eligible. She took her oath on June 28th and just voted in her first election. She works as an activist, with San Lucas and with the Chelsea Collaborative, connecting immigrants with services, and urging those eligible to become citizens and vote.

And lately, she and others said, people are finding their way back to San Lucas. Some of them are undocumented immigrants who need help with food and housing, and have nowhere else to turn. Others have heard about the church’s participation in a program to help those arrested come up with bail. This year’s posadas have been well-attended, by men and women hungry for fellowship, and for hope.

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“God is always there helping us,” Perez said. “He is going to take the best out of the worst that is happening now. These people are starting to stand up for themselves because of Trump.”


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.