A Sanctuary Church
Posted on August 14, 2019 | Posted by Pastor Daniel
Perhaps you’ve seen the headline: “Largest US Denomination declares itself a Sanctuary Church” But, what does this mean?
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) meets at a churchwide assembly every three years to worship, learn, and make decisions for the whole of the church. At this August’s assembly the church did a lot, including re-electing Elizabeth Eaton as our Presiding Bishop, changing the practice so deacons in our church are now ordained, adopting the social statement “Faith, Sexism, and Justice,” and declaring ourselves to be a sanctuary church.
As a church founded by immigrants from Scandinavia and Germany, our denomination has long cared for immigrants. Our decision to become a “sanctuary church” is a recommitment to do so. Specifically, this action means that the ELCA will continue to support refugees resettled in the US, as Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains does. Ministries of the ELCA will continue to provide legal assistance to immigrants seeking asylum. The ELCA will advocate for fair and humane treatment of detained immigrants. The ELCA will speak out against racism or fear-mongering towards immigrants. The ELCA will continue to support and accompany immigrant minors through the AMMPARO program (a really neat program I encourage you to learn about).
We are already doing most of this. So, declaring ourselves a “sanctuary church” might feel like a publicity stunt. It isn’t. But it is a public declaration. Sort of like a wedding is a public declaration of love and support. This is a way of saying to anyone listening, including ourselves: we care for migrants. The ELCA and its synods and congregations will continue to explore what this commitment means in the years to come.
The media has not handled this announcement well. Part of that is our own fault for not providing a clear understanding. But the media also was quick to comment and critique often without seeking information. One clip I saw had four panelists criticizing the decision, but no representative from the ELCA. So let me clear up a few things: This decision is not a decision to break any US law or encourage immigrants or anyone else to do so. This is not a decision for each congregation in the ELCA to shelter or hide undocumented immigrants. Some congregations in the ELCA do provide support or places for immigrants to live, but we do not call on congregations to break the law nor hide immigrants from authorities. This decision does not put our nation at risk, caring for people with higher rates of disease (as one media outlet declared) or higher rates of crime – two claims refuted by facts. As our synod Bishop Jim Gonia stated, “In its simplest form, becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. Being a sanctuary denomination is about loving our neighbors.”
Update: Since first publishing this article, the ELCA has published a great explanation of what it means to be a sanctuary denomination. Find it here.