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Thoughts on Sanctuary

from Rev. Michael Gregg, pastor of Royal Lane Baptist Church, Dallas, TX

Sanctuary is a place of safety and refuge. In the Old Testament, God found refuge in the world by showing up in the sanctuary of The Tabernacle and later The Temple, in the Holy of Holies. The sanctuary was God's home on earth. God told Moses, "Let them construct a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8). The sanctuary became a sacred place where God's presence was real. "You shall keep my Sabbath and revere my sanctuary; I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:30). Then, in the New Testament, we learn that God no longer dwelt in a confined, off-limits physical location but in the actions and spirits of all believers. Paul described each Christian as "a temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19).

Sanctuary was not only a place of refuge for God, but also a place of safety for people at risk. In ancient Rome, criminals and debtors could flee to churches and receive protection from the Roman authorities pursuing them. This practice continued throughout the ages in convents in the Middle Ages housing abused women, the Underground Railroad helping slaves escape to freedom, European families hiding Jews from the Nazis, and more recently the Swiss monks offering asylum to Eritrean refugees. This practice continues today as Sanctuary seekers find refuge in churches, the sacred space of faith, because places of worship are unsuitable locations for arrest and seizure.

The current Sanctuary Movement for churches began in 1982 when John Fife, 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 persecution and possible death by Central American paramilitary groups. So, Fife began the Sanctuary Movement. Churches that identified with the Sanctuary Movement declared themselves "sanctuaries" and committed to provide food, shelter, and legal counsel. Rev. Alison Harrington, the current pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church, where the Sanctuary Movement began, says, "The 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."

Will we be a sanctuary in the tradition of the early church? Will we heed God's command to welcome the stranger and Jesus's plea to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty? Will we invite the stranger in? I believe Royal Lane is not simply a sanctuary where a Sunday service happens once a week. I believe providing sanctuary is our spiritual duty. We, as believers of the Christ who traveled the margins, should eliminate boundaries. We should welcome refugees, provide legal counsel to undocumented immigrants, amplify the voices of women, fight for rights of the LGBTQ community, practice community with Muslims, and share stories with people of color. Lord, prepare us to be a sanctuary not only in our hearts but in our church as well.

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