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On Sanctuary

from a sermon preached by John Medeiros and Denise Roy, University Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN

In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains… They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, neither will shall they learn war anymore. Isaiah 2:1-4

The Isaiah text is set during a time of war. In the prior chapter, the “holy” city of Jerusalem is accused of murder, injustice, and corruption. Isaiah’s vision is not in the present; it takes place in the days to come. This is a text of hope, which we’re all looking for. We’re longing for that time when we shall learn war no more. In the advent of this New Year and the shock and fear of our recent election, people of faith are asking, What can we do? The answer is simple: we can offer Sanctuary.

Throughout the ages there have been many examples of Sanctuary, such as convents housing battered women in the Middle Ages, the Underground Railroad helping slaves escape to freedom in the 19th century, and families hiding European Jews from the Nazi terror in the 20th century. One example worth addressing is the re-imagining of sanctuary begun by the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s: (1) first, to understand flight from poverty as form of flight from violence; and (2) second, to understand sanctuary as the goal of justice work. The Sanctuary Movement began when a Presbyterian minister wanted to help Central American refugees apply for asylum in the United States. He started a non-profit organization to help them do so, but of the 13,000 applications filed, only 328 were approved. Those whose applications were denied were deported to suffer under the very people they were fleeing from. So he started a secret smuggling operation known as the Sanctuary Movement. Based on the Judeo-Christian concept of Sanctuary, member churches declared themselves “sanctuaries” and committed themselves to providing food, shelter, and legal advice.

Soon over 500 churches joined the movement. This, of course, was done in defiance of the law. At trial, the other defendants argued that this was an exercise of religion. The movement won the sympathies of many, and it even received an international human rights award. Are we prepared to be this kind of Sanctuary? Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church, in Tucson, where the Sanctuary Movement began, writes, "[T]he geography of sanctuary, as a principle, reaches beyond the walls of a house of worship; true sanctuary has no borders and is not bound to a specific organizing group. Instead, the need to create Sanctuary space is essential for all social movements.”

This is particularly true for those communities most vulnerable under our new Administration – including refugees, our LGBT brethren, our Muslim neighbors, women, and people of color. Even today, the concept of Sanctuary exists in our own communities. Cities across the country have declared themselves Sanctuary Cities. This means that the city will not use its local resources – including its police force – to enforce federal immigration laws. Under our new Administration, these cities run the risk of losing federal funds for providing such sanctuary. Are we prepared to be this type of Sanctuary?

Sanctuary is a spiritual stance. Sanctuary is our duty. If we adopt this view, where does it lead? It leads to a view of justice that eliminates boundaries of all kinds. It leads to a view that justice requires eradicating the need for sanctuary, to make the conditions associated with sanctuary—peace, security, safety—the norm rather than the exception. So how do we do this? - We can walk in solidarity in the struggle for civil/human rights; - We can contact legislators demanding action; - We can provide friendship and financial support; - We can open our church space for others to gather and organize. Are we prepared to be this kind of Sanctuary? As people of faith, we are called to welcome the sojourner and love our neighbor. To offer sanctuary to those vulnerable to sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia. Sanctuary is no longer something provided by the relatively privileged on behalf of the displaced; it is a re-imagining of place to include as full citizens all who have entered.

In the words of Danez Smith from the poem summer, somewhere: no need for geography now that we're safe everywhere. point to whatever you please & call it home, church, or sweet love. paradise is a world where everything is sanctuary and nothing is a gun. Returning to the words of the prophet Isaiah: “…They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, neither will shall they learn war anymore.” Amen.

John Medeiros is an immigration attorney in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Denise Roy is a Professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Both are members of University Baptist Church, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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