By Stephanie McCrummen
Inside a tiny Colorado church, a woman who had been taking refuge for nearly nine months was sitting by a window, watching the snow drift down. She watched for an hour, then another, reminding herself for the 257th day in a row why she had chosen to be here, when there was a knock at the door.“Rosa?” called a voice from the hallway, and then she remembered. Today was the day of the surprise.
“Don’t tell me what it is,” Rosa Sabido had said when someone started to elaborate on it the week before. She had been in United Methodist Church of Mancos since June 2, 2017, one of 40 known cases of undocumented immigrants living in churches across the country to avoid deportation, and wanted something to look forward to beyond what life had become. A blur of waiting. A blur of sleeping. A blur of people stopping by to see how she was doing, to say how sorry they were that it had come to this.
Out in America, beyond the property line of a church that in effect had become her country, the decades-old debate over immigration reform was as loud and emotional as ever. President Trump was stepping up deportations and highlighting immigrants he described as rapists, murderers and gang members. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was giving an eight-hour speech calling young immigrants “courageous” and “patriotic” and speaking of their “divine spark.” Week after week brought more protests and accusations that both parties were using the issue for political gain while failing again to find a solution.
And all this time, Rosa was sealed off, watching the seasons change through the window — the end of spring, summer, fall, winter, and now almost spring again, a late snow falling as she got up to answer the door.
It was the pastor, his wife and a woman Rosa had never met before — a stranger arriving with a plate of cookies and pretzels. “There’s more!” the woman said, disappearing to her car, then calling out from the front door: “Okay! Close your eyes!”
Rosa closed them.
“No cheating!” said the pastor’s wife, who moved toward Rosa, reached her hands up and pressed her fingers over Rosa’s closed eyelids. Rosa wobbled. She held out her arms for balance, waiting to see what it could be.
She was not a “dreamer,” one of the 800,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children and now waiting for the courts to decide whether they can be deported. She was not one of the violent criminals often singled out by Trump, or one of the life-or-death cases that sometimes appear in the news. Rosa Sabido was one of the rest — roughly 10 million immigrants without proper legal documents living ordinary lives in America.
She was 53, unmarried and without children, and said she first came to the United States on a visitor visa in 1987 to see her mother and stepfather, both naturalized citizens who lived in Cortez, Colo. She said she traveled back and forth between Colorado and Mexico for a decade until immigration officials raised questions about her visa and told her to leave the country, at which point she crossed back into the United States illegally and settled into a quiet life in Cortez.
She lived in a small blue house next door to her parents at the edge of Mesa Verde National Park. She got a job as a secretary for the local Catholic parish. She made extra money selling homemade tamales out of her car, driving a route that took her to banks, pottery galleries, spas and offices around Cortez and the nearby town of Mancos, avoiding run-ins with immigration authorities until 2008, when she was arrested during a raid targeting relatives and released on the condition that she check in with the federal immigration office in Durango.
This was what she had been doing, checking in year after year, requesting stays of deportation and being granted them until last May, when she was notified that her latest request had been denied. Her next check-in happened to be scheduled for 10 days later.
Frantic, she called a lawyer, who told her she would probably be detained and deported if she went. She called her priest to see if he could do anything. She called a parishioner who did charity work, and that was when she first heard about a church that had recently voted to become what is known as a sanctuary.
“Standing with compassion,” was how the church’s pastor, Craig Paschal, had described the idea when his small congregation began discussing it not long after Trump was elected. He explained to them that being a sanctuary would mean taking in a family or person facing deportation, which the congregation was in a unique position to do since it was a long-standing federal policy to avoid enforcement actions in churches.
The vote was unanimous, even though people thought it unlikely that anyone would need them in the mostly white town of 1,700 people. A few months later, though, word came that there was a person in need, and it was the woman who drove around town selling tamales.
“They want to take Rosa,” the pastor recalled telling his wife.
Rosa realized that she knew the church. It was the small stone one with the nice garden where she always turned right on her sales route.
In Mancos, volunteers began hauling in a mattress and clearing out a classroom inside the church’s fellowship hall, preparing for what they imagined might be a stay of a few weeks.
In Cortez, Rosa began packing, suddenly panicked that immigration officers might show up at her door at the last minute, and realizing she didn’t know if she’d be gone for a week, a month, or longer. She packed shirts for summer and sweaters for winter. She boxed up documents representing years of trying to legalize her status. She packed her pictures of the Pope and saints of impossible causes. She asked her stepfather to take care of her four dogs, one of which suddenly bolted out the door, Rosa running after her, crying when she found her and crying again as she said goodbye and drove east to Mancos.
At the church, the pastor and several volunteers were waiting, and Rosa walked up the four steps and went inside the fellowship hall.
She looked around. Here was a short hallway, the pastor’s office to the right, a kitchen to the left. Ahead was a large, wood-paneled main room, and in a corner, a smaller one with a door that said “classroom.” Inside was a single bed with new sheets, an empty bookcase and an empty table under a window with a view of a tree, a yard and a fence. She unpacked her bags.
As news spread, people began coming by the church with canned goods, and towels, and bath items, and in one case, a rocking chair whose owner noted that the wood grain on one of the arms resembled the face of Jesus. But the pastor realized that not everyone was supportive. One online commenter wrote that the church should be burned down. A few people wrote letters to the editor. “The Mancos church may appear to be doing a kind deed in the community, however, they are in their own way supporting lawless behavior,” one woman wrote.
The pastor answered that America had a long history of unjust laws and that it was the duty of Christians to stand with “the outcast.” He invited people to come meet this person that the government now considered an “ICE fugitive,” a designation that applies to more than a half-million undocumented immigrants failing to comply with final deportation orders. Come see the fugitive.
By summer, Rosa’s voice was hoarse from telling her story over and over to the steady stream of people stopping by, including the volunteers who slept on a mattress in the pastor’s office every night within reach of a folder scribbled with emergency instructions: “If ICE shows up, DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR UNLESS THEY HAVE A BENCH WARRANT SIGNED BY A JUDGE!”
By fall, she found herself standing with a group of people holding candles to mark her first 100 days in sanctuary, noticing that many of them were wearing T-shirts with a drawing of her face and the slogan “Rosa Belongs Here.”
By winter, she was realizing that her best hope for a solution — a bill to legalize her status that would have to pass in Congress — was exceedingly remote, and soon, Rosa stopped reading political news altogether.
She began using her laptop to play a continuous stream of meditation music, unable to bear the Mexican ballads she used to love to play. She began learning about mantras. The year 2017 became the year 2018, and one day as spring was arriving, Rosa went outside, squinting in the bright sunshine, walking all the way to the edge of the church property, where she always willed herself to stop.
Only once in the entire nearly nine months had she crossed the line. She was talking on her cellphone, distracted. She moved a foot forward, and her toes touched the sidewalk in front of the church. “Rosa!” yelled a woman passing by, and she jerked her foot back onto the property.
Now a group of boys traipsed by.
“Hey Rosa!” they called out.
A woman driving by slowed to a stop.
“Hey Rosa!” she said. “I hear you’re making tamales this weekend?”
“Yes,” Rosa said. “Veggie.”
She waved goodbye and went back inside.
he was starting to notice herself changing. She had varicose veins on the back of her knees. She felt her mind becoming sluggish. She worried that she was losing touch with who she had been before all of this, even as she knew she was becoming more and more important to people in the town of Mancos.
Almost every day brought some Rosa-related activity inside the fellowship hall. There were “Rosa Belongs Here” committee meetings. A woman was offering yoga classes with Rosa. A therapist offered her a “shamanic massage.” A man who had a stroke came by the church every week to pick up meals Rosa cooked for him, and swore his health was improving.
“Rosa, do you agree that you can’t oversteam the tamales, you can only understeam?” a woman asked her now, another day underway with Rosa teaching a tamale-cooking class.
“That’s true,” Rosa said, mixing the corn dough in the kitchen as a group of women looked on. “Now this is a Mexican tradition. Please, everyone taste the masa, otherwise the tamales will never cook.”
“Oooh,” one woman said, trying some.
“Mmmm,” said another.
“The cheese has to be the soul of the tamales,” Rosa continued, folding it in.
“The soul,” another woman repeated, nodding, and as Rosa went on explaining about lard-to-flour ratios, three more women arrived for an exercise class Rosa would be leading after the tamales. They unrolled their mats in the main room and started warming up.
“I’m telling you, Rosa Sabido has changed my life,” one of the women said, swinging a kettle bell. “It’s inspiring — it’s wonderful.”
Rosa exhaled a long breath as she walked across the room to get more corn husks. She had the meditation music going. The woman with the kettle bell told Rosa to remember her mantra. “Be flexible — mentally, physically, spiritually,” she said as Rosa exhaled again and went back into the kitchen, where someone was talking about a recent trip to a place far away involving wide-open views and long walks around a lake. Rosa put the tamales in the steamer and walked back into the main room to start the exercise class.
“Okay, so we’ll work from the head down — shoulder roll . . .” she began.
After a while, a woman arrived to set up supplies for an afternoon art class, and smiled seeing all the activity.
“She’s a little community maker, isn’t she?” she said.
“She’s a very spiritual person,” said another woman.
“Rosa has been the answer for me. She’s helped me find my purpose,” said the woman who slept over in the pastor’s office Monday nights, and as the group began painting, Rosa slipped off into the kitchen. A man from Durango was coming by to pick up an order of tamales she had stayed up late cooking, and she understood he was connected to a prominent Colorado family who might be helpful with her case. She wanted to make a good impression.
“There are three dozen, all mild — everything is very, very mild,” she said when he arrived.
“Oh wow,” he said, looking at the two large boxes, and when Rosa said she could help carry them to his car, he looked concerned.
“Is it safe?” he said.
“If I just go to a certain point, it’s okay,” Rosa said.
They walked outside into the late afternoon, and when Rosa reached the edge of the grass, a woman driving by called out in a startled voice: “Rosa!”
Rosa assured her everything was fine. She wasn’t leaving. She handed over the tamales.
“It’s very courageous what you’re doing,” the man said, and she thanked him.
People kept telling her things like that. She was brave. She was spiritual. “Our Rosa Parks,” was how the pastor’s wife described her, referring to the civil rights leader. “She is the perfect one. I think she was destined to be the person in this place, at this time.”
Rosa went back inside, and soon everyone was gone except Joanie Trussel, a Zen Buddhist chaplain who had become a confidante. They sat by the window and Rosa looked out. Tree, yard, fence.
“I’m exhausted,” she said.
“It’s okay for you to just relax,” Joanie said.
“Yeah, I know,” Rosa said.
Joanie asked Rosa how her stepfather Roberto was doing, and her mother Blanca, who was sick with cancer.
“Any news?” Joanie said.
“No,” Rosa said. “They’re just sending her here and there. So.”
“So,” Joanie said. “Wednesday. You’ve probably heard this already. You have an event.”
“There’s going to be an event here?” Rosa said.
“For you,” Joanie said. “It’s something nice.”
“If it’s a surprise, don’t tell me what it is,” Rosa said.
“Okay, that’s all I’m going to say,” Joanie said. She got up to leave. “Are you going to take a nap now?”
“I probably will,” Rosa said.
She went into her room, shut the door and fell asleep surrounded by shelves now full of all the gifts people had brought her, so many crosses and candles and pictures of saints. An hour passed. The night person came and settled into the pastor’s office.
Another hour passed. The heater clicked on. A dog barked. A neighbor’s truck pulled into the gravel alley behind the church, sounds that used to startle Rosa but no longer did. She kept sleeping, having a dream she would later recall as involving a big dog running down a street, which became hundreds of little black puppies, and her running after them scared and worried, and when she woke up, three hours had passed.
She got out of bed, walked across the dark room to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. She stared inside, then closed it, and went back to her room. She fell asleep again and woke up after midnight.
She felt most like herself when she was awake in the middle of the night. She could think in Spanish without translating. She could remember who she was. “Yes, I am Rosa,” she would say to herself. “Yes, I feel lonely. Yes, I’m in sanctuary.” She could think about whatever she wanted, about how at times she felt “like a pet, like the bear of the zoo everyone wants to come and see,” or “like the excuse” people needed to vent their anger about where the country was headed. She could wonder why one person had brought her a can of soup that was expired and why another had brought her a traditional Mexican blouse. She could feel guilty for questioning all the good will. She could feel selfish for being a burden to Pastor Craig, to Roberto and to her sick mother. She could remember all the things she loved. Like reading a biography of Edgar Allan Poe. Like her dogs, or driving from Cortez to Mancos with music blaring. Most of all, she could remember how she loved living in her blue house with all the possibilities of America outside her doorstep. She had always loved that feeling, ever since she was a little girl in Mexico City who told her teacher that what she wanted to be was not a doctor or a lawyer but a person who lived in America. She kept reminding herself that was why she was here. She fell asleep.
She slept through the 9 a.m. church service and the 11 a.m., and when she woke up, her stepfather Roberto Obispo was there. They talked about Blanca, who had gone to Mexico to visit her family, and after a while Roberto got up to leave. He had an air of formality, and always tried not to cry when he was leaving, and he was trying not to now as he so easily left the church property, a naturalized citizen driving home along a highway past the orange mesas and sagebrush.
He blamed himself for so much of what had happened. If only he and Blanca had married the day before Rosa’s 18th birthday instead of on Rosa’s 18th birthday, she might have been eligible for legal status as their minor child. Or if he had included Rosa and her brother on the petition he had filed for Blanca’s American residency, maybe a path would have opened.
“Just fill in the names,” Roberto said. “Just that.”
It all felt so arbitrary, he said. The only reason he was here legally was that his boss happened to put his name on a form back in 1987, when legislation granting amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants was taking effect. So now Rosa was the Mexican who felt American, and he was the American who was turning on a CD of his favorite old Mexican ballads and still trying not to cry as he reached Cortez, turned down a narrow street into an industrial area, passed a hulking recycling yard where he worked sorting materials, and stopped in front of three one-story houses in a stand of leafless trees.
The tan one, he said, was where Blanca’s son lived until, facing deportation, he returned to Mexico. The pink one with the yard full of flower pots was where he and Blanca lived. The blue one with the broken-down trucks in front was Rosa’s. She had bought them over the years to fix up — an RV to travel the country, an old food truck to expand her business.
Roberto tried to understand her. He was worried about her. He thought she should go back to Mexico. Be with the rest of the family. He and Blanca could visit. Everyone loved her in Mexico. “ ‘Rosie, you’d be happier,’ ” he told her.
But he knew she didn’t want to leave. She kept telling him that. She so deeply did not want to leave that she was willing to remain in the only place left for her to be in this country, the place she was now inside with the door locked.
It was Sunday evening, and soon people would be arriving for a potluck dinner. She needed more time alone. She needed to remember why she was here. She needed to remember her blue house and how it felt being there. She was forgetting. It would be a year soon. She would turn 54 soon. She was realizing that this sanctuary life could go on forever. She wondered what she was becoming in here.
Pastor Craig was wondering the same thing, and so one afternoon when she was asleep in her room, he sat in his office planning what he called a town “visioning session.” He wanted people to imagine alternative ideas for what success might look like for Rosa, to think bigger.
His own vision included what he called “the Mandela option,” after Nelson Mandela, who remained a political prisoner in South Africa for 27 years until he finally emerged as a national hero who brought down apartheid. Maybe Rosa would become a version of that. He had been reading about cloistered nuns, including one “who just lived in this room, and had all this wisdom and knowledge.”
“She became a saint and really changed the world,” he said. “Maybe this is like that.”
He and Rosa had talked about it.
“The word I use is surrender,” the pastor had told her. “Not resignation. Patience.”
Rosa told him she was trying. And on her 257th day, as she stood in the middle of the fellowship hall with two hands pressed over her closed eyes, she was trying again. Patience.
“No peeking!” said the pastor’s wife.
She heard the sound of something scraping across the wood floor.
She kept her eyes closed. She knew better than to hope it might be a letter from a congressman, or some solution that would allow her to leave this church and live as an American. She knew to expect nothing. She held out her arms to keep balance.
“Okay!” said the pastor’s wife. “One, two, three!”
Rosa opened her eyes.
She saw the wood-paneled room. She saw the window, the tree, the yard, the fence. She saw the pastor smiling in front of her, the pastor’s wife who thought she was destined to be here, the Zen Buddhist chaplain who had become her friend, and a stranger now approaching her with an enormous wreath of flowers and saying, “Everyone loves you, even if they don’t know you.”
She saw her country.
(Animal friends pay Sabido a welcome and affectionate visit at United Methodist Church of Mancos. Photo: Melina Mara-The Washington Post)