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Catholic Church Community Braces For Baltimore ICE Raids


This morning, we also visited the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ Catholic Church in Highlandtown. It's a neighborhood where many immigrants from Central and South America have settled.


BRUCE LEWANDOWSKI: It's a big space, and it's full on Sundays.

LEWANDOWSKI: Father Bruce Lewandowski took a few minutes to show us around when we stopped by early before a day that was already packed with activities - a funeral, a wedding and training for those who will help with services. Built by German immigrants in 1904, the church's history is reflected in the ornate marble carvings and other adornments. But the congregation has changed, and that change too is reflected by the colorful statues that flank both sides of the altar.

LEWANDOWSKI: Our lady from El Salvador. She's Our Lady Queen of Peace...


LEWANDOWSKI: Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico, Our Lady of the Clouds from Ecuador...

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

LEWANDOWSKI: ...Our Lady of Suyapa from Honduras. So each community is represented somehow in the devotional life of the parish by their statues and images. But it's home, as I said, to - it's the heart of the Latino community at this point.

MARTIN: Father Lewandowski tells us the fall is a marathon of festivals dedicated to patron saints from every country that has sent its sons and daughters to Baltimore. The church has regular Spanish language Masses, and bilingual fliers in the entrance advertise counseling and health services.

LEWANDOWSKI: So you could see why people want to come here.


LEWANDOWSKI: I mean, this is a place that really lifts you up. And when all is going wrong outside there, when you come in here, at least you can get a rest, you know? And we do offer that for folks - come here and rest a while. Just come here and be at peace, even if it's just for an hour on a Sunday.

MARTIN: But this weekend, the mood is different. And sitting in his church office, Father Lewandowski described the atmosphere in the neighborhood over the past few weeks.

LEWANDOWSKI: What has it been like here? We have a lot of people very afraid.

MARTIN: You were telling us earlier that you came in one day, and there were people here, like, early in the morning - like...

LEWANDOWSKI: On Sunday morning, I open up the church. This particular Sunday was a couple of weeks ago. I opened up the church, and there was a van of people in front, on the right in front of the church. And I said, oh, you're here early for Mass. And they said, no, we stayed here all night because we didn't know where to go.

MARTIN: And who were they?


MARTIN: Were they...


MARTIN: A family.


MARTIN: And they slept in the...

LEWANDOWSKI: Mom, dad - and they slept on the street in their van in front of the church because their thought was, where's a safe place? I go to church. And really, a lot of people think that - the safe place is church, which makes what's going to potentially happen tomorrow even more insidious.

MARTIN: Are you worried that - I mean, is there some understanding that the boundaries of the church won't be breached? I mean, do you have some fear that ICE will actually try to come into the church...

LEWANDOWSKI: We don't know that.

MARTIN: ...Take people?

LEWANDOWSKI: There's no precedent for that. The concern I have is people won't come to church. By doing this on Sunday, it's creating even a more unstable situation for people because if you look at the - at least Latino immigrants, the vast majority of Latino immigrants are Christian. We have 3,500 families here that we count because a lot of people don't register because of fear of the unknown and what happens if you give all your information to somebody. So in the area around here, there's probably 10,000 to 15,000 people.

Talk about instability - couple weeks ago when this first happened, that Saturday, before - you know, this last time, the last round of this, no one was on Eastern Avenue. No one was doing laundry at the laundromat. The supermarket was empty. Nobody was on the street going for a walk, nobody taking their children to the park. It was a ghost town.

MARTIN: What are you hearing from people in this area? Because this is a mixed area, isn't it? Right? And whenever we report on this issue, we always hear from people who have the view that you have, which is this is cruel, inhumane. And then you hear the other people who say things like, you know, if you're not here legally, you shouldn't be here. And I just wonder if you ever hear that. I mean, do you...


MARTIN: ...Ever have - what do you hear?

LEWANDOWSKI: I publicly a couple of weeks ago here in front of our church on the news said our church stands with immigrants. We stand with our parishioners. We're here to do everything that Pope Francis has called us to do. So the phone calls I got afterwards from parishioners - something like this - I hope ICE comes and gets you.

MARTIN: He's a parishioner.

LEWANDOWSKI: He's a parishioner. The divide in the country is also dividing the church.

MARTIN: What is your specific support for people who are afraid at this time other - you know, offering obviously emotional support and spiritual support.


MARTIN: But any - is there any other practical dimension to your support right now?

LEWANDOWSKI: We have an open-door policy. Anybody can come anytime of the day or night that they need help. We have done know your rights training. We disseminate that information with a lot of frequency. So we make sure that people get in their hands the steps they need to take if they should have an encounter with ICE.

MARTIN: Do they have any rights? This is one thing that I'm unclear about because I think - do people have any rights?


MARTIN: When they...

LEWANDOWSKI: People who reside in this country have the same rights as any citizen. So at the door, if ICE shows up, you don't have to answer unless they have a warrant signed by a judge. And we're telling folks it's much better off if you don't.



MARTIN: And what else? So they don't - people don't have to open the door. They don't have to...

LEWANDOWSKI: They don't have to engage with the officers.

MARTIN: Do they have to give identification?


MARTIN: They don't.


MARTIN: They don't have to.


MARTIN: Do people realize that?

LEWANDOWSKI: Well, they do if we if we tell them. I think we have been doing know your rights training since October of last year every two weeks.

MARTIN: I want to go back to something you said earlier, which is there's something particularly hurtful and offensive about planning these raids for Sunday.

LEWANDOWSKI: Sunday is our holy day. It's the Lord's day. It's a day of rest, and it's a day to go to church. If your faith is your anchor in a time of uncertainty like this, when you're really afraid, the place you want to be is in church. And something like this separates you from that anchor, from the church, where you want to go as a place of refuge and prayer and hope and where you get encouragement. It shakes the foundations that people stand on. And also, what it does is it brings hopelessness.

MARTIN: What's going on today? I know that there's...


MARTIN: It's full in here today. Even in - like, every room in here has...


MARTIN: ...Got something going on.

LEWANDOWSKI: We - it's business as usual. And it's that whole idea - we're not going to be shaken. Today, there's a funeral. There's a wedding. There's a quinceanera. It's our regular business, order of business, tomorrow our regular Mass schedule. And we have a picnic. And we prayed, reflected and thought seriously about canceling the picnic, so we asked people, and they said, no. Let's go anyway. Let's have a party. We're going to keep living our lives.

MARTIN: That was Father Bruce Lewandowski of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ Catholic Church in Baltimore, Md., one of the 10 cities expected to be targeted by ICE raids this Sunday. Tomorrow, we'll have the latest news and updates from Baltimore and around the nation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.