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.