Woman's life in sanctuary continues for more than 500 days

Edith Espinal has never considered herself to be a political person, but ever since she moved into the Columbus Mennonite Church in the fall of 2017 to avoid deportation to Mexico, Espinal’s plight has landed her right in the middle of a heated national debate over immigration.

She also never thought of herself as a patient person, but after well over 500 days spent living inside a church, patience is something she has been forced to learn. “I need to keep my patience, because I’m here, and I need to be strong for my family,” Espinal said during a recent interview at the Clintonville church (she occasionally required the use of translator Carrie Vereide, an Ohio State grad student).

Espinal’s husband, Manuel Gonzalez Hernandez, and 17-year-old daughter, Stephanie, often spend nights with Espinal at the church, while son Brandow (19) stays mostly at the family’s apartment; oldest son Isidro (22) travels for work and is rarely in Columbus. Stephanie will graduate from high school this year, and Espinal is hoping she can attend the graduation ceremony.

“The hard part is when I can’t see my kids. I miss the days when they don’t come, and I feel alone,” Espinal said. “I stay here most times by myself. Sometimes I feel a lot of anxiety. And sometimes depression gets the best of me.”

Recently, when Espinal is feeling particularly low, she turns to her dog, Bella, for comfort. “When I feel very sad, she’ll pick out a toy and bring it to me to play with me,” Espinal said.

Bella (or “Mamas,” her nickname) sleeps with Espinal at night, and sometimes the two of them sit on a couch in the second-floor living area, which doubles as the church nursery on Sundays. They like to look out the window together and watch the kids run around on the playground of the daycare center across the street. The voices of children playing can be a cheery soundtrack on gloomy days.

Espinal has made many friends at the church, too. She feels loved and supported by them and worships with them on Sundays. But she doesn’t call her living space at the church “home.”

Amid frequent calls with her lawyer, Espinal continues to fight for legal immigration status. And even with all the legal complexities and lack of progress, she’s hopeful. “I think it’s the support of the community. I think without the community my family wouldn’t be able to continue fighting.

“The community is my voice,” she said. “I’m a mother that’s fighting to keep her family together, and I’m not going to stop fighting until I can fix my legal status and until I can return home with my family and be myself.”