New Sanctuary Movement

Reviving the Sanctuary Movement

Family takes shelter. Image courtesy Nelosa/
Family takes shelter. Image courtesy Nelosa/

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.

Welcoming the Stranger (Even If It’s Against the Law)

Image via New Sanctuary Movement video
Image via New Sanctuary Movement video

There is a nonviolent uprising around immigration happening in Philadelphia and a dozen other U.S. cities. Philadelphia faith leaders announced that they will welcome immigrant families even if it is against the law. They are building a movement of "sanctuary congregations" and have dreams that the U.S. will one day be a sanctuary nation.

We join them in insisting that we must obey the laws of God over the laws of our government — and that means "welcoming the foreigner as if they were our own flesh and blood." (Exodus 22:21, Lev.19:34, etc., etc.).

Jesus says that when we welcome the stranger we welcome him. When God asks: "When I was a stranger did you welcome me?" (Mt. 25) we are not going to say: "Sorry God, Congress wouldn't let us."

We know that sometimes divine obedience can mean civil disobedience.

As St. Augustine once said: "An unjust law is no law at all."

The Right Words

I appreciate Sojourners’ attention to U.S. immigration policy (“The New Sanctuary Movement,” September-October 2007). I appreciate also the language that addresses those whom we find on our doorstep as “strangers” in the biblical sense, and that we are to extend to them hospitality.

I do, however, see that our language is not adequately addressing the root plight of most of the people who seek a new life in the U.S. As a beneficiary of Christ’s peace in my life, I see the lack of that peace for these immigrants as being an economic issue and that these people are economic refugees. The use of a label like “refugee” may soften the debate and guide it toward solutions that don’t involve fences and armies but that rather employ justice and peace.

If the church can raise awareness through its rhetoric, Americans will ask, “Refugees from what?” With the question will come the beginning of solutions. Most people recognize that refugees have circumstances forced upon them and thus their choices are limited; they usually include two: live or die. I fear that many think these immigrants choose from a list of many options to cross our borders illegally. That certainly isn’t the case.

Language is important, and a group such as Sojourners maximizes its influence when language that truly explains the situation is used.

John G. VanDerWalker II
Hayden, Idaho

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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