By Michael Clark 2-20-2017

“Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for You.”

The Ithaca College Protestant Community recreates this sacred moment every Wednesday night to conclude their Evensong service. In my four years at Ithaca, I sang these words with 80 united voices echoing in the chapel every week. It’s a cherished tradition.

“Sanctuary” in the Old Testament means God’s physical home on earth. God commands, “Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). This was a sacred place that must be respected: “You shall keep my Sabbath and revere my sanctuary; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:30). In the New Testament, we learn that God no longer dwells only in a limited physical location but in all believers. Paul describes each Christian as “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

But the word sanctuary took on an additional meaning in the early centuries of the church, one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In ancient Rome, criminals and debtors could flee to Christian churches and receive asylum from Roman authorities. This practice continued in various adaptations throughout the middle ages and into the sixteenth century (think Esmerelda in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Sanctuary seekers found refuge in a church, the sacred space of worship, because such a holy place was unfit for violent seizure, but historian Karl Shoemaker maintains that, for the church fathers, the practice of sanctuary was about far more than a building. He writes, “Instead, the episcopal duty to intercede on behalf of the accused and condemned and the penitential discipline administered by the churchmen served as the initial intellectual foundation for sanctuary.”

This spirit of compassion and care was at the heart of the sanctuary tradition from its origins. Understanding this second meaning of sanctuary expands the message of the song I sang so many times, offering a new challenge: What would it mean for me to create a place of refuge? This question is fiercely relevant today as America grapples with this word in a new context: sanctuary cities.

I currently live in Houston, Texas, the nation’s fourth largest city and most diverse metropolitan area. We’re a city with no racial or ethnic majority, where nearly 1 in 4 people were born outside the U.S. We’re also home to 400,000 undocumented immigrants, earning us the label “sanctuary city” from some. Earlier this month the Texas Senate passed Senate Bill 4, a measure aimed to cut funding from cities whose police don’t enforce federal immigration law, making Houston a target for anti-immigration forces.

But for Houston, there’s a new sheriff in town. In November Harris County elected Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, a Latino police officer committed to ending 287(g), the controversial policy that extends to local law enforcement the immigration enforcement authority typically reserved for ICE. In addition, Mayor Sylvester Turner has spoken out loudly for keeping Houston a welcoming city. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Turner emphasized, “HPD, under my administration, as long as I am mayor, is not going to profile people. … We are not going to be ICE. Period. End of discussion. It's not going to happen, irrespective of what the legislature or anybody else may say.”

I’m encouraged by the leadership of Sheriff Gonzalez and Mayor Turner and the efforts of United We Dream Houston and others to tackle crucial policy issues, but Houston’s status as a sanctuary city requires a response from everyday residents, nearly three quarters of whom claim to be Christians. Will Christians make a sanctuary in our city?

Before we put our defenses up (They’re here illegally! They’re taking our jobs! They need to come in the right way!), let us remember that our allegiance is not primarily to this nation. Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Paul reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), and though we are to respect earthly authority (Romans 13:1), when push comes to shove, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Will we be a sanctuary in the tradition of the early church? Will we heed God’s commandment: “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34)?

Will Christ say to us, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison [or an immigration detention center] and you came to visit me”?

Let us remember his words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

So in this new context, I offer a new prayer:

“Lord, prepare us to be a sanctuary city — pure in our devotion to Your love and holy in our commitment to obey Your call; tried in the challenges of this world and found to be true to Your character. With thanksgiving, we’ll be a living sanctuary for You and Your people.”

Michael Clark is a pianist, teacher, and writer based in Houston. He attends Houston Mennonite Church where he volunteers as a worship musician and chair of the discipleship team. 

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