From behind the walls of Philadelphia’s First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Oneita Thompson has read articles about the importance of mutual aid during the COVID-19 crisis and watched livestreams of the nationwide uprising as part of the Movement for Black Lives. Her internet connection is her only real contact with the outside world, and relying on mutual aid—in other words, the kindness of strangers—is currently her only means of survival. She posts her Cash app and Venmo and regularly circulates a number of online fundraisers. Currently, there are three: one for her son Clive “CJ” Thompson, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient who was accepted into Columbia University to study film and media studies but does not qualify for financial aid because of his immigration status; one for living expenses and lawyer’s fees; and a third, more recent fundraiser to bury Oneita’s beloved grandmother back in Jamaica. The fundraisers result in sparse and sporadic funds, leaving the mother of seven feeling “left behind.”
While Americans struggle through the pandemic and wait for the day they can begin leaving their homes more regularly, there is no such bright spot on the horizon for Oneita or her husband Clive. In 2018, the asylum-seekers moved out of their home in New Jersey and began living at First United Methodist Church, becoming what is likely the first Black family to publicly enter sanctuary in the United States. They must remain behind the church’s doors indefinitely, or they risk being taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
When President Donald Trump took office in 2017 and began his anti-immigrant crackdown, ICE immediately targeted low-hanging fruit: undocumented immigrants who had deep roots in the U.S. and had been checking in with immigration officials for years. These are the people they targeted for deportation, parents like Clive and Oneita. The couple decided to enter sanctuary with their youngest children—American citizen teenagers Christine and Timothy—because they did not want to be separated from their children and returned to Jamaica where they feared for their lives.
The last year in sanctuary has been brutal on Oneita. She missed the birth of her first grandchild, and there is little she can do to help bury her grandmother, the woman who raised her in Jamaica. The couple now has no income, thanks to COVID-19. Before the pandemic, they catered community dinners at the church, the proceeds from their beautiful homemade Jamaican food going toward their living expenses. Since the pandemic hit, there are no more dinners and no more visitors, just dead silence. Oneita told Prism that for the first time in her life, she is struggling with depression and “desperately pleading” for the community to come through for her family. Here she is, in her own words:
I left Jamaica because of gang members. I had to leave my grandmom, who is the one who raised me. I always dreamed that one day it would be okay for me to return to my country to see her again. The last time I spoke to her was over FaceTime on Aug. 13. She couldn’t really speak, but there was a twinkle in her eye. She didn’t understand FaceTime, so she thought I was really there. She died on Aug. 21 and we are trying to get the money together to bury her.
I wonder if people see this—what I am going to call financial trauma. I don’t think people realize when your family is in another country it’s on you to work and help the family financially. I have not been able to work for these two years in sanctuary. I cannot describe how it feels to be stuck here and not able to help my children or put my grandmom to rest.
Immigration status always gets in the way and when you have to worry about money like this, it’s hard to celebrate even the good things. I just feel sometimes like we are different from other families, we don’t get to celebrate in the same way. When CJ got into an Ivy League school, of course there was excitement and happiness, but then I immediately thought: “Wait a minute, how is he going to pay for this?” It takes away the happiness and joy, and I worry about what it does to the spirit. If we were a different family, maybe we would have a way to pay for the school or get financial aid, but we don’t have that opportunity. We don’t have the money. I can’t even leave the church and visit Columbia with my son.
It honestly sometimes feels so frustrating because people will give advice like it’s so simple. They will say, “CJ can just get financial aid,” but they don’t know how it works. They don’t understand that DACA students can’t get the same help. Sometimes I think: Where did I go wrong? Could I have done something different to stay in this country, to make sure my kids didn’t have to suffer these challenges? What else could I have done? I tried to do everything right. I worked hard and paid my taxes. It keeps me up at night to wonder if I did something wrong. It feels so horrible to be in a position where you can’t help your family the way that you want to. My son is a young Black man. He is an immigrant. He works very hard and tries to be a good person and he was accepted into an Ivy League school, and he has no help from me. It feels very bad.
We have not worked for two years. Think about all the things you would be behind on if you and your spouse did not work for two years. We have done everything we can here in the church, that’s why we were cooking and fundraising, but now we can’t do that because of the pandemic. Not a penny is coming in from fundraising dinners right now and that was our main source of income. I keep starting fundraisers online and trying to raise money virtually, but it’s not the same as coming here and eating our food and spending time together. We are hurting very bad. The principal of [my daughter] Christine’s high school was kind enough to get together with the church to organize bringing us groceries so that we can eat.
In the beginning of the pandemic, you truly saw people suffer because they had to stay home. That is our life all the time in sanctuary, but we cannot ever leave. We cannot go on a walk or go to the store or just get some fresh air. For us there is nothing to look forward to after the pandemic because we still cannot leave this church, and there is nothing happening with our [immigration] case because the courts are not open. We do not know what is being processed or when we will get a court date. We are working with absolutely no information. It seems like so long ago we were happy and upbeat because our I-30 was approved, but then the pandemic hit.
When you are in sanctuary you are already isolated, but at least we had our monthly fundraisers and visitors. After the pandemic hit, you would not believe how lonely it got. There was nobody here for months. Just a few weeks ago some people started to come back to the [church] office, but we still cannot really be around them. If you have ever seen this church, you know that it is gigantic and full of activities. Before we would hear people practicing the piano and see the little children go to school and everything else, but it has been like a ghost town.
Living in sanctuary was already hard, but I have never been as depressed as I have been since the pandemic came. I am a Christian woman and I know Jesus is real, but I am struggling. I feel down and out. It’s like we have been cut off from the world even more. If you are not living this, you cannot fully understand what it is like to be in sanctuary during the pandemic.
If I wasn’t stuck here I would be an essential worker. I was a nurse’s assistant certified by the state. My daughter is a nurse. During the pandemic, she works 12-hour shifts, sometimes every day of the week. We contribute to this country. Instead of sitting behind the walls of this church, I would love to go back to work and be productive and help people during the pandemic. But I can’t.
I’m going to be very honest with you: Sometimes I feel like we have been forgotten. People all over are protesting for Black people and we are probably the first Black family in sanctuary and there has been so little outreach. We need the support of our community to financially survive. We need relief, and we need to know people care about us if we’re going to make it through this.