+Bishop Jon V. Anderson
When I was a young pastor, in the days before there were cell phones, I remember my failure to provide sanctuary to a woman in the first congregation I served. As we walked out of the mundane work of a committee, we encountered her enraged husband wondering what she had been doing. He had been looking for her. They had miscommunicated. He was verbally abusive and made me afraid for his spouse, who was a small elderly woman. I stood there frozen, stunned at his language and anger. She got in his car. They drove away. I wondered then and I wonder now why I did not somehow intervene to protect her. Why did I not step forward to challenge his words, slow him down emotionally, to even offer her sanctuary of some kind? Do you have a memory of failing to provide sanctuary to someone?
We call our worship spaces “sanctuaries.” We invite people to experience sanctuary in a variety of ways in worship, in fellowship, in support groups, in prayer, in our faith practices, and occasionally physical sanctuary to protect someone from themselves or someone who might harm them. We invite all people into our worship space. We invite all people into our fellowship. How do we decide who we offer protection to and who we do not? How far will we go in living out the great commandments? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark 12:30-31
I have been thinking about sanctuary for refugees because of our church body’s assembly, which passed a resolution about sanctuary. One of the things it talks about is “AMMPARO.” The acronym stands for Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation, and Opportunities. When I talked to Pr. Marco Curriel about the assembly, I asked him what this Spanish word means in normal usage. He said, “Protection.” Sanctuary is also offering a place of protection. Like the word, our offer of protection can take multiple forms like advocating for policy and political change. It can mean making sure there are people to represent the legal concerns of refugees fleeing hardship. It can mean creating opportunities like are the ones shared in this video shared at the churchwide assembly to help people who have been deported.
This issue of migration is nothing new. A long time ago, people resented all the Norwegian economic refugees coming to this land. In that time, my ancestors traveled here from Norway in the mid and late 1800s. Most of us, unless our ancestors are indigenous people, had ancestors come here as immigrants or refugees. Each time there have been significant historical waves of refugees and immigrants, a counter reaction of resentment and political restriction of numbers developed. I wonder who all helped my ancestors make it to this country and begin their lives in a strange land. They were not fleeing for their lives. They entered the country at a time when the gates were open. I wonder what would have happened to them if they had not lived in a time like that.
What does it mean to create space to protect vulnerable new neighbors? What does that look like? I keep praying and thinking about what it means to offer sanctuary. In another season of my life, I was marginally involved with the sanctuary movement during the time civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, which created refugees fleeing into our country. I served as pastor at a congregation in Northwest Houston, Texas. Some of us gathered food and clothes which we delivered to a Roman Catholic Church near downtown that was sheltering refugees fleeing from Latin America. If I remember right, we went to the church to hear the El Salvadorian Bishop Menardo Gomez speak at worship there.
Later our congregation would host English as a second language (ESL) classes in our church building so that people who were here already might become citizens under a program created in a law signed and supported by President Ronald Reagan called the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. We also had a Korean congregation begin to use our space on Saturday evenings. Those were forms of sanctuary. I wrote letters to my political leaders advocating for the refugees of that time. That was a form of sanctuary. I lived in a neighborhood full of diversity. The differences seemed to be much more a gift than a problem. When Robyn’s dad had a heart attack, my neighbors, each of a variety of cultures and colors, had me over for dinner while she was gone. They were my sanctuary at that time.
One of the things I pray and think about is, “What would it take for me to break the law of our land in order to offer sanctuary to someone?” When do we go against the will of our country and law because God’s will calls us to act? The politics of our current day are interesting. The politics of our church body are fascinating, puzzling, or disappointing depending on your point of view. This resolution, if nothing else, opens up a great opportunity to talk about our calling to protect one another. What does that mean? How do we practice our faith in this part of life?
One of my children and a daughter of this synod worked with refugees and gave over two years of her life to care for people who were recognized as refugees by our government. The refugees were supported and her work was made possible by our government and Lutheran Social Service donors. I remember what she said to me after the beginnings of serious resistance to refugee resettlement began to surface. She had been supporting a young mom while she went to the doctor. She held the young mother’s child while she saw the doctor. “Dad, I think if people could just hold the baby of a refugee for twenty minutes like I did today, this would all go away.” I am deeply troubled that now we have and are separating mothers and babies/children. If my daughter and I were changed by her work and experiences, the negative impact of such policies will be felt by these children for the rest of their lives.
How will you and your congregation provide sanctuary? Don’t just wonder about how you and your congregation might work to advocate for refugees or support organizations providing refugees sanctuary in a variety of ways. Get below the issue of sanctuary for refugees. How will you provide sanctuary for other kinds of refugees like people fleeing from or experiencing…
…harassment because they are weaker in some way, or different.
Our faith speaks of protecting the stranger, the lost, and the orphaned. There are many texts that talk about this in scripture. Our Christian tradition is full of stories of kindness and sacrifice for the sake of loving our neighbor, new or old. The value of hospitality has deep roots in our Christian tradition. I invite you to join me in thinking and praying about what it means to offer sanctuary.
When I was in seventh grade I remember Alvin Conrad saving me. I was in a small high school and wrestled. Our team was so weak that I was on the varsity squad. Some of the seniors and junior basketball players were unhappy that I had been asked to dress in the varsity locker room even though I was in junior high. They were picking on me with their mouths, snapping me with towels, and pushing me around. That was when my team mate Alvin stepped in and said, “That is enough.” He came and stood between us. He made it clear that he would protect me. He told them they needed to stop. He protected me when I was so vulnerable. I did not know him really at all. I still remember it.
Jesus came to call us to protect and love our neighbors and strangers and even our enemies. The love of Jesus is big enough to create sanctuary and protection for all kinds of people, even sinners of a personal and communal kind like you and me.
As I follow Jesus, I ask for Christ’s wisdom to know how and when to act as I live out my everyday spirituality in this and many other ways.Explore AMMPARO resources by clicking here.