During very hard times, people often shelter — provide sanctuary for each other.
I think of the amazing work of Raoul Wallenberg during the 1940s — who set up 31 safe houses to shelter Jews from the Nazis in and around Budapest — or the brave family in Amsterdam who hid Anne Frank during World War II.
I think of Jewish and German immigrants in old New York City, where I now live and work. They slept in three shifts. “Hurry up and eat, honey, we need the tablecloth for a sheet,” is a famous Yiddish expression. It would be hard to say who was providing sanctuary for whom — but surely they were mutually sheltering each other in a cost-effective way.
Or more recently, in the 1970s and ‘80s in this country, when political refugees poured across the border from Nicaragua and Guatemala during the U.S.-supported wars there, and churches and synagogues hid some of them to protect them from deportation, in the first so-named U.S. “Sanctuary Movement.”
Less dramatic situations develop now in many of our families, where a 26-year-old adult child can’t find work and comes home to live in the basement. We take each other in, especially if we have the space and others don’t.
“Sanctuary” in the 21st century has often been defined as larger than providing housing. In the New York City New Sanctuary Coalition, for the last 10 years of our existence, we have defined “sanctuary” as moral, spiritual, psychological, financial, legal — and sometimes physical — support for people who are about to be detained or deported. Why the broad definition? Because often the first five adjectives protect more people than the last one. Physical sanctuary often serves as a publicity attempt to raise the larger issues — but actually benefitting only the person sheltered.
The NYC New Sanctuary Coalition’s Accompaniment Project has trained hundreds of volunteers to accompany people facing deportation on their required periodic “check-ins” with the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. ICE doesn’t like to have citizens paying attention to what they are doing. Showing ICE that immigrants have citizens watching and supporting them helps ICE to realize that these people are not the ones that they need to deport right now. Accompaniment is as good a supportive strategy as physical sanctuary, helps more immigrants, and can be a gateway to providing physical sanctuary if it becomes necessary.
We also broadened the definition of sanctuary as a strategy because we in the faith community thought it more spiritual and theological in its core, than the important human, constitutional, and civil rights cores espoused by our marvelous secular partners in immigration protection.
When Congress failed to pass immigration reform laws for all eight years of the last administration, we found ourselves playing much more defense than offense. We surely tried to change the unjust laws and we surely failed.
A most egregious part of the unfair laws against immigrants is one that goes against the heart of multiple religious points of view. Under current immigration law, if any non-citizens have a prior felony conviction — even if they have served their time, lived a law-abiding life ever since, married a U.S. citizen or had U.S. citizen children — they must be immediately deported, removed from the country, exiled from their American families. That law violates the heart of the principle of fairness and the principle of forgiveness. Religious people may be able to look the other way at some kinds of assaults on our wisdom, but we cannot abandon the notions of repentance and forgiveness. They cut to the core. If we cannot believe in forgiveness, what can we believe? If we cannot show that God is gracious, what can we show?
Since the election, there has been a profound renewal of interest in the strategy of sanctuary. The president-elect joins the mayor of our great city in using the word loosely and often. Sanctuary cities are very important; they exemplify the right to refuse certain legal interventions against their residents.
At the moment, we know of 11 congregations in New York City who are providing some kind of physical sanctuary. There are surely more, as many congregations made up primarily of immigrants have long quietly provided sanctuary, broadly conceived and physically conceived, on a regular basis. You will not hear of this sacrificial work for obvious reasons: They are hiding and sheltering and protecting people who, if found, will be deported.
The Guardian reports that up to 400 churches and synagogues are now willing to offer physical sanctuary.
They do so for a number of reasons, but including that every religion advises protection of the stranger. In the Christian scriptures, Jesus is clear (Matthew 25: 34–36) when he says,
Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
The scriptures also tell us in Hebrews 13:2:
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
The Old Testament also reminds us that we once were strangers in a strange land and therefore must welcome the stranger as ourselves, as an expression of covenant faithfulness (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Further, in the New Sanctuary Movement, we find a profound mutuality of stranger and guest. We lose the sense of a citizen and alien invader, or living in a fort and instead live in a port, just because we sense our humanity in the humanities of each other.
Others offer sanctuary out of patriotic duty. Many of us are descendants of people who entered freely, before immigration laws existed. Many of us love the stories of how close our houses are to an Underground Railroad site. Patriotism, oddly, is one of the strongest reasons to disobey laws that need to be changed and will be changed when we come to our senses.
It is important to note that providing physical sanctuary could be seen as breaking the law against "harboring" deportable immigrants (in 8 USC section 1324), but that term is subject to various legal interpretations. More importantly, breaking a law of the state to follow a higher law is a long-standing religious tradition. It should never be done lightly and it can carry consequences. To date, however, no church had been prosecuted or harassed for giving any type of sanctuary, including physical housing.
I choose a sanctuary strategy both out of patriotism and my belief in Jesus. I love my country and I love the gospel even more. I couldn’t possibly allow the state to tell me or my people how to follow Jesus, and thus feel a need to test the “law” about the government intruding into religious spaces.
So here, I offer you and your communities a six-step guide for how to offer physical sanctuary.
1. Pay more attention to the whys than to the hows.
One of the most vexing matters so far in this early stage of sanctuary’s second stage in this new century is here: We say we don’t know how. Maybe our church building doesn’t have a shower. Or we are worried no one will help out. Or we are afraid of more work when we are already overworked. These are important matters. They also matter much less than the stakes in the why. We make the road by walking. Resources are available to walk you through the planning; e.g., this tool-kit.
2. Get congregational support.
Even if there is a division in the congregation about whether and why to do sanctuary (at any level: accompaniment or physical or all ways) the conversation is important. Take it one step at a time. You can come closer together. Your congregation will define its next chapter by whether it makes its way through in this historic and kairotic moment. Fight well. Fight beautifully. Fight lovingly. Do what you can to help those who are in a lot more trouble than the emotional anguish of a congregational fight.
3. If possible, get an official statement of why you are doing what you do.
Use this when you get questions — from congregants, from the hierarchy, from the media — as you surely will. At my church, Judson Memorial in New York City, our board, after extensive discussion, passed a resolution, which you can find at here.
4. Work on multiple levels.
DO NOT do anything without first consulting with the immigrants who are impacted by your actions; they are your essential partners, both in handling the planning as well as the doing, the difficulties as well as the successes. Once you have found the person or people who will be with you, work with them to decide what to do. You are not a host and they a guest; you are partners. Beware of paternalizing.
5. Pray often and make your objective as humble as possible.
Think, “we are doing this little thing,” along with many others who are doing a little thing. Spend as much time getting your denomination to help you as you do internalizing how to do it. Spend as much time getting others to do sanctuary strategies as you do on doing them yourself.
Don’t count on publicity so much as word of mouth. The best thing about sanctuary as a strategy is that it is genuine and down to earth instead of “messaged” and “manipulated” and “organizationally opportunistic.” Beware the instrumental. Indeed you will find partners and even “church growth,” but those are not the reasons you are providing sanctuary.
6. Be prepared for lots of surprises.
You will need a strong, internal team of a half dozen or so who will work closely with those in sanctuary, day by day, month by month, possibly even year by year.
Think of sanctuary as bringing your beloved adult child into the spare room and not knowing what is going to happen next.