Canada and the World

SANCTUARY

An ancient right takes on new purpose as a congregation befriends a convicted killer

Catherine Roberts April 16 2001
Canada and the World

SANCTUARY

An ancient right takes on new purpose as a congregation befriends a convicted killer

Catherine Roberts April 16 2001

SANCTUARY

Canada and the World

An ancient right takes on new purpose as a congregation befriends a convicted killer

Catherine Roberts

On a Monday afternoon, Calvary Bible Church, an unimposing brick building in an old residential section of Kingston, Ont., is quiet. Inside, down the hallway with the framed sepia scrolls of the Ten Commandments on the walls, two women sit at a table piecing together a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. One is Irene, a mddy, jovial homemaker. The other, the church’s most famous parishioner—

some would say prisoner—is Lucy Lu, a convicted murderer. “If I was by myself,” says Lu in halting English, “it would be very hard. I couldn’t do anything without the people of the church.”

Since Nov. 21, the 43-year-old Lu, in defiance of a deportation order to China, has found sanctuary in this modest church. The list of her supporters is impressive: everyone from her new husband of six months, Daryl Gellner,

to her employer, to some members of the local police force and Kingston MP Peter Milliken, the Speaker of the House of Commons. Her lawyer is Toronto-based Stephen LeDrew, who is also president of the Liberal Party of Canada. But it would be wrong to suggest Lu is on the side of the mighty. Opposing her is Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan, who has so far ignored public pleas to have Lus case reviewed.

And Immigration Canada has made it clear that the moment Lu steps off church property, she will be arrested.

Caplan’s position may be unassailable: a landed immigrant convicted of a serious offence—Lu pleaded guilty to killing her husband in Toronto—is not eligible for Canadian citizenship. But not all cases are what they seem. And while her lawyers appeal her conviction and her treatment by immigration au-

thorities to the courts, Lu has sought, and been granted, sanctuary by her adopted congregation—a practice as old as Moses, according to the Bible, and codified as far back as the fifth century AD, when Roman law guaranteed that churches could provide refuge, even for criminals.

For those evading the law, sanctuary was essentially banned by the major European powers in the 1700s. But in the past 25 years, there has been a revival of the asylum movement in North America and Europe, especially as it relates to refugees from repressive regimes. Some authorities have reacted strongly. The U.S. government prosecuted asylum providers in the mid-1980s. And in one of the more celebrated incidents, British authorities used sledgehammers to break down the doors of an Anglican Church sacristy in January, 1989, and turf Sri Lankan Viraj Mendis from the country.

The Canadian government has never gone to these extremes, though it claims the right to do so. As a result, perhaps, Canadian churches have passed resolutions in recent years reaffirming the

right of asylum, particularly for refugees who have been denied immigrant status or due process under an increasingly tough-minded evaluation system. The United Church of Canada, for one, has even published a booklet for congregations facing sanctuary requests. It warns that sanctuary providers can face imprisonment themselves for helping people avoid deportation. But it also suggests that if congregations do offer asylum, they should organize potluck suppers and other community events to “put a human face” on the cause. “Most churches don’t believe they are breaking the law when they offer asylum,” says Rev. Chris Ferguson, a United Church theologian. “Instead, it’s an appeal to a tradition that says justice and the law can meet only when there is a moral dimension.”

In that context, Lus story is not without its complications. In 1984, she married He Zhang Zhao, a factory worker, in China’s Guangdong province, and moved to Toronto. Ten months later, Zhao was found in a snowbank outside the couple’s Chinatown apartment, killed with a meat cleaver. Police reports say the 27-year-old was struck 14 times in the head as he slept; he was then

dressed and carried down three flights of stairs before being dumped outside. The killer, police believe, was the diminutive Lucy Lu. Zhao’s blood was found on the building’s stairwell, and on a blanket in the basement.

Lu was charged with first-degree murder, passed from one legal-aid lawyer to another (six in all) and tried three separate times. The first trial, in 1987, ended in a hung jury; the second, a year later, in a mistrial. At her third trial, Lu entered into a plea bargain on the lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. (She says she signed under duress and because she didn’t understand English.)

In 1989, Lu entered Kingston’s Prison for Women, where she spent 19

months before being released to a halfway house on day parole. While incarcerated, she met Bob Hawkins, a 68year-old lay preacher at Calvary Bible Church and a very successful shoe salesman. At his wife’s urging, Lu came to work in their store, Shalimar Shoes, once she made parole. She became so popular that customers gave her tips. “I’ve been in business for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Hawkins, breaking into tears. “She was a tremendous employee.”

Tried on three separate occasions, Lu says she never understood what she was admitting to

But as her life in Kingston took shape—moving from the halfway house to her own apartment and then

marrying Gellner, a local contractor— her immigration status remained unsettled. She received her first deportation order in 1990 when she was in prison, but once she was released on parole she was granted an annual work permit from Immigration Canada. Then last November, one month after her wedding and six years after receiving full parole, Lu was told to get on a plane and leave the country. “The reason she wasn’t deported when she came out of prison was because China refused to issue travel documents,” says Gellner. But eventually, and for reasons no one is quite sure of, the papers arrived.

If Lu returns to China, that country’s criminal code allows for her to be retried and, if found guilty, executed for

her first husband’s death. And that, according to Winnipeg immigration lawyer David Matas, is a real possibility. “China has such a poor human-rights record,” says Matas. “Can you really trust it?” In January, 2000, Canadian officials deported former bank accountant Fang Yong after he had been accused of embezzling 1.6 million yuan ($300,000) in China in 1990. Fang sought asylum in Canada, but his plea was rejected. Beijing had promised the Canadian government that the 36-yearold would be given no more than a 10year prison term. However, Amnesty International says Fang was executed six months after his return. (Canadian officials say they believe he is still alive.)

Lus Toronto lawyers are now fighting to have the federal court direct the Immigration Appeal Board to reopen her case, arguing that the passage of time, the confusion surrounding her conviction, and her new family and community roots in Canada should be the prime determinant of her fate. In the meantime, Lu and Gellner wait. Their life together is confined to one small room. They have taken up residence in the Calvary Baptist Church, converting a nursery into an apartment that contains a mattress, a television and an exercise bike. While Gellner goes off to work every day, at least two or three church members show up to keep Lu company. Meals are donated each day by members of the church or local restaurants. “At least it’s not prison,” Lu says. It is also not the new Canadian life she had seen tantalizingly open to her, just a few short months ago. E3