A Shared Theology of Sanctuary | Sojourners

A Shared Theology of Sanctuary

Image via Ric Urrutia

There are two names that adorn a large brown building with a shingled roof in Denver, Colo.: One spells out Park Hill United Methodist Church, and below it reads Temple Micah. It’s in this shared space where Methodist and Jewish believers come together to practice their religious traditions — in different chapels on the campus for traditional worship times and together for prayers and events hosted by both congregations.

During prayer and times of gathering, two identical candles, one in each chapel, burn in honor of Araceli Velasquez. Aug. 9 marked one year that Velasquez has been living in sanctuary in the building.

Velasquez walked to the Mexican border from El Salvador in 2010.

“I came here afraid of my life in my country, and I came here fleeing that violence,” Velasquez told Sojourners through a translator.

She said her life was directly threatened in El Salvador and that coming to the U.S. seemed to be her best option. 

When Velasquez came to the border, she was taken to a detention center in Texas where she was held for a month and a half before making her way to Colorado. She met her husband in Colorado and the couple have three children who are American citizens. She lost a request for asylum in 2016 and was given a year-long stay of deportation in the U.S. Immigration officials indicated that they would not renew her stay of deportation any longer. So instead of going to her Aug. 9, 2017 check in with ICE, Velasquez and her family went to Park Hill and Temple Micah.


Araceli Velasquez and family are welcomed into sanctuary at Park Hill and Temple Micah. Image via Ric Urrutia.

For Velasquez, taking sanctuary was her best bet of staying with her family.

“I’ve had my liberty restricted, where I haven’t been able to be free,” Velasquez said.

“But I felt that taking sanctuary was my only option because I did not want to be separated from my family and I feared for my life in my country.”

Jennifer Piper, the program director for Interfaith Organizing for the American Friends Service Committee's Denver office, worked closely with both Park Hill and Temple Micah as they became a sanctuary space.

"It's these brave individuals that feel that the separation of themselves from their community is fundamentally unjust," Piper says. "They feel pretty strongly that deportation is an immoral and unjust consequence for not having access to a piece of paper, and their hope is that by engaging in this civil initiative and not complying with the deportation order is not only helpful to them but their community at large."

Shared Space

For Lead Pastor Rev. Nathan Adams, Associate Pastor Rev. Angie Kotzmoyer of Park Hill, and Rabbi Adam Morris of Temple Micah, the decision to offer Velasquez sanctuary was a simple one: It folded neatly into the shared vision and mission of both of their congregations, despite the differences in their faith traditions.

“We wouldn’t be here sharing this space if there wasn’t an ideological and spiritual simpatico; the potential for this [sanctuary] or something like this was there from the first day we moved our stuff here,” Morris, who spearheaded the effort, said.

Morris, Adams, and Kotzmoyer agreed the relationship between their two congregations is a partnership rooted in shared values and core beliefs.

“These values, I’ve expressed in my sacred language, are: Remember the stranger, love your neighbor as yourself, and that all human beings are created in God’s image without any reservations or asterisks on what that may mean,” Morris said.

And the Park Hill grounds have historically been an intentional, inclusive, and progressive space. With a 107-year history, Park Hill was integrated in the early 1960s and now serves about an equal number of both black and white people, , according to Adams. They’re also an LGBTQ-affirming church and have various ways of practicing justice in their community.

Extending their place of worship as a home to Velasquez and her family seemed like a natural step, Adams said. In fact, he said, they decided to become a sanctuary space two months before Velasquez asked to take refuge, in part because of what they saw as imminent threats to the immigrant community following the election of Donald Trump — threats that would be proven true in later months as news reports surfaced of ICE raids and border arrests.

The three leaders also point to a personal pull to the sanctuary movement: Adams is biracial, Morris is Jewish, and Kotzmoyer is openly gay.

"I think knowing and feeling what being other is, we have a deeper sense of wanting to be inclusive for people and see that justice happens, " Kotzmoyer said.

Professor Najeeba Syeed, associate professor of interreligious education at Claremont School of Theology, says there are five common constructs of how people in Abrahamic religions read their call to protect immigrants. Each of the sacred texts provide information about the importance of caring for the neighbor, caring for the other, as well as for providing hospitality, being interdependent on God and people, and being a city of refuge – all important for activating faith communities and taking stances on immigration issues at a grassroots level.


Image via Ric Urrutia

“Sanctuary is really about activating local congregations,” Syeed said. “Taking care of the neighbor is ingrained in Abrahamic religions. If your neighbor isn’t safe, it’s giving them a safe place. If your neighbor is hungry or without shelter, it’s part of these religious traditions to pay attention.”

Syeed points to the verses in the Bible and the Torah plus a Hadith, a saying of Prophet Muhammad, telling the readers to love their neighbor as themselves. This, she says, is a big reason why congregations provide sanctuary and care for their immigrant neighbor.

Sanctuary … or Solidarity?

When Ismaeel Chartier, spiritual leader of the Clifton Mosque, heard talks about sanctuary in the Cincinnati area in January 2016, he joined a sanctuary coalition, and he declared his mosque a sanctuary congregation almost immediately after. Chartier told Sojourners that the Islamic people migrated in ancient times looking for sanctuary, looking for a place they weren’t oppressed, a place to call home. It was this conviction, as well as seeing the threat for immigrants after the election of Trump, that Chartier said made the decision to be a sanctuary mosque so easy. Clifton Mosque was hailed at the first sanctuary mosque.

But the decision quickly became an issue among the congregants, who are predominantly West African, Arab, and Desi. Undocumented Muslim people from all over the world live in the U.S., typically far away from public narratives — usually a choice that was made intentionally.

“They’re afraid of the whole topic because they’re afraid about backlash from the Trump administration,” Chartier said. “When you start to encourage folks into advocacy that have just come from Syria, they say ‘why are you doing this to us, we have just escaped to the U.S. to safety’ and they have a hard time understanding that this is what we’re doing to ensure their safety.”

In February, the mosque retracted it statement and decided instead to be a solidarity mosque, providing resources like food and immigration counsel to immigrants. While there are still talks happening within the mosque about what sanctuary may look like for them, Chartier says there is still fear around doing social justice work in the Muslim community — congregants worry that they will be targeted if they take a stand.

But the tension reaches beyond the congregants of the mosque. Immigrant leaders and people who are considering taking sanctuary have an understanding that Muslims (regardless of immigration status) are just as marginalized as undocumented immigrants.”

“They said ‘we appreciate the gesture but we’re not safe in your mosque because they won’t respect the sanctity of your sanctuary,’” Chartier said.

But this doesn’t diminish the importance of what sanctuary means for many Muslim leaders. Linda Sarsour, Imam Omar Suleiman, and Chartier will continue to push forward and have difficult conversations in their communities about the importance of sanctuary.

In one way or the other, each religion’s beliefs about immigrants are intertwined.

“As a Muslim, Christian, or Jew, if I’m not in relationship and seeking to establish the dignity of others, then my relationship with God is impaired,” Syeed said.

“Other human beings have a sense of that which is sacred in them so we have to treat them fairly and with justice.”