Congregations frustrated with the lack of congressional and presidential response to the urgent immigration crisis have looked to their faith for an alternative way to help the strangers among us. In late September, more than 60 congregations signed on to support the revival of the Sanctuary Movement.
What exactly is the Sanctuary Movement? Unknown to most, sanctuary is actually one of the most ancient traditions we have as a people of faith. In the late Roman Empire, fugitives found refuge in early Christian churches; in medieval England, churches protected accused wrongdoers; and in the years before the Civil War, people of faith organized the Underground Railroad to help slaves flee the South. In the 1980s, nearly 500 congregations practiced sanctuary in an attempt to shelter the hundreds of Central Americans fleeing brutal violence in Guatemala and El Salvador.
Currently, the Sanctuary Movement allows members of congregations who are facing deportation to reside within the sacred space of a church, synagogue, or mosque in order to avoid immediate deportation from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Although the ICE is not legally banned from entering churches or schools, custom is to avoid such sensitive areas unless a suspected terrorist or dangerous felon is involved.
Today there are currently 5 active sanctuary cases, along with 30 congregations who are offering sanctuary in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Washington, Maine, and Oregon. The Sanctuary Movement is important because it breaks down the polarized, politicized, and dehumanized aspects of immigration reform and looks instead to Christ as a model for loving one’s neighbor.
Rev. Eric Ledermann, whose University Presbyterian Church is currently offering sanctuary to community member and father of two Luis Lopez-Acabal, said recently that Sanctuary “isn’t a matter of elections.”
Rather, it “is about real people, with real blood, flowing through real veins, and we need to act because these are our neighbors. Luis was a stranger, but he was also our neighbor, and Christ calls on us to welcome our neighbor,” Ledermann said.
In Leviticus, God calls people of faith to remember that they once were strangers in a strange land, and they must welcome the stranger as an expression of covenant faithfulness. Across the country, congregations supporting the Sanctuary Movement are living out Scripture by welcoming, loving, and protecting their neighbors. Rev. Ledermann reminds communities of faith that Jesus took the teaching of welcoming the stranger and expanded it.
“Jesus said that we are not only to welcome the stranger, but we are to love them, to love our neighbor whoever they are whether they’ve come from a foreign land or you’ve known them your whole life,” he said.
At its root, the Sanctuary Movement is about people. When deportation forces mothers such as Rosa Robles Loreto to leave behind two children or social justice leaders such as Francisco Aguirre to leave behind a community he has impacted for 20 years, federal legalities fall short of the welcoming calling of God’s kingdom. As government action continues to put the lives of the over 1,000 people who are deported each day at risk, it is the moral imperative of the Church to act as Jesus would and provide refugee for those neighbors who we are called to love as ourselves.
Kaeley McEvoy is Campaigns Assistant for Sojourners.