AMHERST — The sanctuary of First Congregational Church was packed with faith leaders from around the region on Wednesday afternoon, all gathered in a circle with their hands resting on one man: Lucio Perez.
It has been 17 months since Perez, an undocumented immigrant and father of four from Guatemala, took up residence in the church to avoid deportation. On Wednesday, religious leaders came together to pray for Perez — and for undocumented Russian immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova, who is living in sanctuary in the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence — before heading back to their own congregations, where similar vigils were planned for the evening in 15 other places of worship.
“Prayer breaks chains and ankle bracelets,” the Rev. Vicki Kemper of First Congregational told those gathered. “So let us be in prayer.”
Perez, a deeply religious man, said he thanks God for those who continue to support him and his family as he lives in sanctuary, and for watching over all of them.
“I know we are living in difficult times,” Perez said. “I start to think when I see my children, ‘They’re growing up without the love of their father.’ But I know they’re in good hands.”
It has become a familiar scene in the Pioneer Valley — local community members rallying to Perez’s cause, holding protests, vigils, religious services and symbolic actions as his time in sanctuary drags on.
For Kakhtiranova, too, support efforts have continued. She still serves as a primary breadwinner for her family, selling homemade perogies to make ends meet. The Unitarian Society, together with First Churches and Edwards Church in Northampton, held their own vigil at 7 p.m.
“The Episcopal church stands with immigrants and refugees 100 percent,” Rev. Jose Reyes, the missioner for Latino ministries in that church’s Diocese of Western Massachusetts, said at First Congregational on Wednesday. “We’re here to do that and live that out.”
Rev. Margaret Sawyer, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, shared an update with the audience on Perez’s case. Sawyer said that although Perez lost an initial appeal in April, his legal team has submitted a second appeal after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June opened up a door of possibility.
That case involved a Brazilian immigrant living on Martha’s Vineyard. In the 8-to-1 ruling, the justices found that if the date and time on an immigrant’s “notice to appear” in immigration court was listed as “to be determined” instead of giving a specific time, the government can’t stop that person from continuing to accrue the time required to qualify for relief from deportation.
That is the legal step that Perez and his supporters are hoping will improve his situation, but on Wednesday Perez and the local faith leaders were counting on the power of prayer.
It is “faith that moves mountains,” Kemper said. “And prayer that changes things.”Dusty Christensen can be reached at email@example.com.