Sanctuary

In Camden, Signs of a City, and a Church, Moving Forward

Image via Ashley LaBonde/Wide Eyed Studios​

For the better part of 50 years, when I thought about Camden, N.J. — if I thought about the city at all — I’d envision driving as quickly as possible through a blighted urban wasteland to get across the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia.

I didn’t envision young people building boats in a deconsecrated church, or designing websites in a beautifully remodeled house whose walls are covered with original art, or being guided by caring adults through the traumas they’ve experienced and into health, wholeness, and academic achievement.

What a gift, then, to be reintroduced to the city through ministries that bring Camden’s human vitality to the surface, where it shines far above the daunting statistics upon which the city’s troubled reputation is built.

Churches Settling Refugees Against Governors' Wishes

Image via REUTERS / David Ryder / RNS

Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch north of Atlanta, has helped resettle a Syrian family, despite an order from Gov. Nathan Deal that the state would not accept Syrian refugees.

Bryant Wright, the church’s pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told CNN Dec. 9 he understands the governor is “concerned about the security of the citizens of the state. But as Christians and as a church, we want to reach out with the love of Christ to these folks.”

He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his church had been planning to help the family before the recent attacks in France.

Undocumented Woman Leaves Sanctuary Church After 461 Days

Rosa Robles, bottom right. Image via Church World Service / Flickr

Rosa Robles spent 461 days inside a Tucson, Ariz., church after receiving a deportation order that would have separated her from her husband and children.

She has finally received an assurance from the federal government that she will not be deported, so on Nov. 11, she left the church for the first time in over one year.

Churches to Serve as Safe Spaces After Ferguson Grand Jury Announcement

People gather to march in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 15, 2014. Photo courtesy of Loavesofbread/Wikimedia Commons/RNS.

After a prayer service outside her church turned violent last month, the Rev. Teresa Danieley, pastor of St. John’s Tower Grove, allowed those trying to escape the demonstrations to enter her church.

Now, Danieley and dozens of other clergy members are preparing to once again offer their churches as safe spaces, or sanctuaries.

The grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot African-American teenager Michael Brown, is expected by the end of the month, potentially triggering further civil unrest. Clergy anticipate some might seek refuge in churches, whether to escape violence or find fellowship.

Organizations such as the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which was formed after the death of Brown, and Metropolitan Congregations United, a group of interdenominational, multiracial congregations from around the region, are in the process of creating a list of churches that are volunteering the use of their space. Many of these churches will be packed with supplies such as food, water, and phone chargers. Medics, legal observers and counselors will also be on hand.

Some believe that unless officers are needed in an emergency, churches should also function as police-free zones during protests.

'Are You the People That Help Immigrants?'

Open church door, Dutourdumonde Photography / Shutterstock.com
Open church door, Dutourdumonde Photography / Shutterstock.com

Zach Szmara, Pastor of The Bridge Community Church in Logansport, Ind., was on a conference call when a young man entered the church. He put the call on hold to walk out of the office and meet him. In broken English, the man said, "Are you the people that help immigrants?" The man had driven more than 20 miles because he heard rumors of a church that loved the stranger.

Szmara said, "In that moment I was both humbled and convicted. I was humbled that our small church had such a reputation. Yet I was convicted that it was only very recently that I could answer 'yes' to the burning question of this young immigrant who came to me."

"I have lived overseas, and there my eyes could easily see the marginalized and the stranger in my midst. But at home in the states, I almost missed it, and almost missed how God has enriched my life because of it," Szmara continued.

The issue of immigration has dominated the headlines for much of this year. As Christians, we believe that – regardless of where we each may stand on the political spectrum – God’s heart for the immigrant is clear. In fact, the Hebrew word for an immigrant appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone, and the New Testament says in no uncertain terms that however we, as Christians, treat the stranger in our midst, is how we are treating Jesus himself.

Declaring Sanctuary

Rosa Robles Loreto and her family. Photo courtesy Rev. Alison J. Harrington

On Aug. 7 we lit a single white candle at the prayer service welcoming Rosa Robles Loreto into sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz. Almost 90 days later, that candle has been joined by five others, representing Luis Lopez Acabal, Beatriz Santiago Ramirez, Francisco Aguirre, Francisco Perez Cordova, and Arturo Hernandez. We are grateful that Beatriz was just granted a stay so that she could return to her home with her two small children, but the rest all remain in sanctuary.

As we approach Rosa’s 90th day in sanctuary, its time to replace the nearly burned down candle, but the light of radical Christian hospitality continues to not only burn bright, but spread throughout the nation.

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

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

BREAKING NEWS:
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."

Spiritual Cultivation

SOIL AND SACRAMENT is Fred Bahnson’s story of finding God through sustainable farming. A trained theologian, he learns to best live out his faith with shovel in hand, practicing a method of permanent agricultural design principles called “permaculture.”

We follow him through the liturgical year on an agrarian pilgrimage from one faith community to another, digging into the big question of how to best love his neighbor. His answers are uncovered through building relationships and healthier soil, communing with others and his Creator in the field. From jail cell to monastic cell, from a rooftop in Chiapas to his four-season greenhouse, Bahnson finds the intersection of community and solitude between the field rows. Just like the first Adam from the adamah (earth), we learn how to give more to the soil than we take away and to reverently observe the garden as fruitful and multiplying. “Human from humus”—he had me at hugelkultur. (Look it up—it’s really cool.)

Bahnson begins his pilgrimage in a Trappist monastery in South Carolina during Advent, joining the brothers in prayer and mushroom-growing practices, entering the dark cold winter silence of vigils and the soil. Bahnson then flashes back to 2001, to Holy Week in Chiapas with a Christian Peacemaker Team accompanying the Mayan Christian pacifist civic group Las Abejas—“The Bees.” In Chiapas we sit and eat with Bahnson on Maundy Thursday, corn tortillas and slow-cooked black beans made into holy elements, partaking of an “ancient and unnamed liturgy,” eating our way into mystery. Bahson ordains the creatures of the earth as perennial ministers of the soil, notes the transubstantiation of seed and potluck as Eucharist. He writes of beginning to think of growing food as the embodiment of loving his neighbors, the journey of the liturgical calendar through the mystery of soil. The book is a slow dance, a cosmic one-turn around the sun.

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Pastor Who Granted Sanctuary to Meet with ICE Officials

Keep Indonesian Families Together, photo via Reformed Church of Highland Park
Keep Indonesian Families Together, photo via Reformed Church of Highland Park

The Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, a New Jersey pastor who granted sanctuary to an Indonesian immigrant, is scheduled to meet with a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement public advocate on March 20.

But Kaper-Dale said he remains skeptical given the wording in the invitation.

“It’s an invitation to talk, but [says] ‘you’re breaking the law,’” he said.

Saul Timisela—who fled to the U.S. to escape religious persecution 14 years ago—has now lived in the Reformed Church of Highland Park in Newark, NJ for two weeks, avoiding deportation.

Refugee Defies Deportation, Seeks Sanctuary at Church

American flag photo by Christopher Penler, Shutterstock.com.

HIGHLAND PARK, N.J. — Saul Timisela was ordered to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Newark early on the morning of March 1 to be deported.

Instead, the Indonesian Christian took sanctuary at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, where the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale is trying to save a group of Indonesian refugees who fled their country to escape religious persecution more than a decade ago.

Timisela may have felt safe given ICE's historical reticence to raid churches where illegal immigrants are being harbored. But at the same time, he was sorry to say goodbye to his wife of 10 years — another Indonesian Christian who's also in hiding because she has overstayed her visa and does not have an open case with the immigration agency.

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