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To Be a Sanctuary

In 1971, Berkeley, California became the first city in the United States to declare itself a “sanctuary city.” In the 70s and 80s, notable numbers of cities in the Southwest began passing similar resolutions in response to the government’s refusal to grant asylum to those fleeing the violence taking place in various Central American nations like Guatemala and El Salvador. Sanctuary cities commit to shielding those within its borders, insulating them from questioning and detention from national authorities. Over the past 53 years, several sanctuary cities have been established around the United States and Canada, including Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario. Most recently, Sacramento, California—already a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants—passed a resolution to become a sanctuary for trans individuals. The rationale reads in part:

“In preparation of future legislation that may criminalize those providing or seeking gender-affirming care and given the Council’s stated values of equity and inclusion, it is important for the City of Sacramento to be proactive in reiterating our commitment to transgender rights and equal protections for transgender people by declaring ourselves a sanctuary city and a place of safety for transgender people…no city resources—including staff time—would be used to detain individuals seeking care or otherwise to cooperate with jurisdictions seeking to enforce laws criminalizing gender affirming care in other jurisdictions.”

The establishment of sanctuary cities was spurred on by religious groups. The 1980s saw several churches and faith-based groups openly declare that they would “publicly violate the Immigration and Nationality Act by allowing sanctuary in [their churches] for those from Central America.” At its height, over 500 religious groups were a part of the Sanctuary Movement founded by John Fife and James Corbett. Much like their spiritual forerunners who participated in the Underground Railroad, these faith communities engaged in civil disobedience for the greater good. Their religious convictions compelled them to extend safe harbor to those seeking it. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since, as the name suggests, the practice of providing sanctuary is rooted in ecclesiastical tradition.

For centuries Greek, Roman, and Christian places of worship have provided refuge to those in danger of persecution. Despite being a faith-based practice, it was codified into Roman law in the 4th century. And respecting the right of churches to provide sanctuary outlasted the Roman Empire! It was eventually adopted throughout the rest of Europe. Sanctuary was recognized in England all the way up until the 17th century when it was banned. Nevertheless, it still remains in practice in some localities even in the 21st century. Quite famously, in 2019 a Dutch church held services for 96 days straight to prevent authorities from deporting an Armenian family who was seeking asylum. Dutch law prevents police from entering religious institutions during liturgical ceremonies. The Bethel church ended their church service only after the government agreed to offer more time in the country to both the family they were sheltering, as well as other asylum-seeking families. Would our churches have done the same?

There are various laws around the world. So it may not be possible for all of our congregations to enact sanctuary in the same way the church in The Hague did. Nevertheless, every church can be a safe haven for those who’ve been persecuted, outcast, and scorned. Churches that offer sanctuary pledge that they will not cooperate with others who seek to persecute them either. In a spiritual sense, all of our churches should be places of refuge for those who need it. But are they? Can refugees—even those who are undocumented—come to worship in our midst without fear? Are our churches safe for members of the queer community? Are those who aren’t from your country or culture accepted in your congregation? At your church’s services, would someone who doesn’t speak your language or worship the same way you do, feel welcomed? If these spaces truly are sanctuaries, they should represent places of escape. Secular sanctuary communities should not be more well-known for opening their doors than their actual eponyms. 

Thankfully, throughout time there have always been, and there still are, groups of believers who are motivated to create environments where the marginalized and cast-aside are able to find sanctuary. For example, the first weekend in May, the Just Love Collective is hosting a summit in La Sierra, California to help train and mobilize willing Christ followers to put compassion in action, and engage in grassroots social justice and advocacy. Registration is open for those who want to become a conduit for positive change, to attend either in person or virtually. Adventists for Social Justice and Conscience and Justice Council are examples of other organizations that encourage members of our faith to work on behalf of those who need the covering of the community. I’m an active part of all these initiatives because I believe we have a responsibility to walk our talk: to be the Hands and Feet of Christ in the world. By God’s grace, I’ll be at the Just Love summit next month and involved in the community action to follow. I hope many others will attend as well. We should mean it when we sing, “Lord, prepare me…”

Image Credit: J W on Unsplash

About the author

Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.  More from Courtney Ray.
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