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What does ‘sanctuary’ really mean? For churches, discerning the answer is a work in progress

The recent sanctuary declaration by the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the country and one of the most visible church bodies in Minnesota, has, predictably, drawn different responses.

Oak Grove Lutheran Church
Tapestry members worshipping at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

In August, when the Rev. Melissa Melnick Gonzalez learned that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had publicly declared itself to be a “sanctuary church body,” she thought it was nothing less than “revolutionary” for her denomination. “It’s really countercultural to see this,” she said.

It’s not surprising that Gonzalez, the pastor at Tapestry, a small church startup in Richfield, would be heartened by the message. After all, many of the people who might look for help from sanctuary congregations are, like many of her parishioners, of Latino heritage. “We might have a slightly different perspective on what sanctuary means,” she said of her congregants.

Indeed, the declaration by the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the country and one of the most visible church bodies in Minnesota, has, predictably, drawn different responses.

The Rev. Scott Searl, the senior pastor at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Edina, said it has led to some angst and confusion because of how the term “sanctuary,” in these divisive times, has been interpreted. Several so-called “sanctuary cities,” for instance, have drawn criticism for declaring themselves to be safe havens for immigrants who are facing deportation.

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The more hesitant members of his congregation, Searl said, worry that churches might be tempted to house undocumented immigrants in potential violation of the law. Some progressive Lutherans, meanwhile, are disillusioned – initially bolstered by the possibilities of a sanctuary declaration, then deflated by the realization that churches aren’t sure how to act on the measure.

Searl would have preferred a less-loaded term – perhaps “accompaniment,” which suggests the kind of solidarity that the denomination has long shared with immigrants and other marginalized groups.

‘Uncharted’ territory

The ELCA was the first church body in the United States to declare itself a sanctuary denomination – a significant public posture as faith groups respond to the plight of immigrants who are living in the United States without legal documentation. In a fact sheet explaining its position, the ELCA said that “becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith.” However, the denomination also said the declaration “does not call for any person, congregation or synod to engage in any illegal actions.”

Mary Campbell, the director of an ELCA program called AMMPARO (Strategy to Accompany Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities), said the ELCA has advised churches that want to become sanctuary or “sanctuary supporting” congregations to seek legal advice on their planned activities. The way in which churches provide sanctuary varies, she said.

Two years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a fact sheet in response to the church sanctuary movement, specifically addressing concerns over “harboring” or “transporting.”

The organization determined that congregations would be at the “highest risk” of running afoul of the law by providing housing “exclusively to undocumented immigrants and actively concealing their whereabouts from the government” and by “transporting undocumented immigrants in an attempt to hide them from federal authorities.”

Deepinder Mayell, the executive director of the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, said immigrant advocates are still feeling out the sanctuary concept. “I think when it comes down to it, congregations are not allowed to get in the way of an (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) warrant, (or) to step between any law enforcement entity executing its enforcement role.” He added: “I don’t know whether ICE would enforce a warrant on someone (living) in a sanctuary scenario. It’s a little uncharted right now.”

A “sensitive locations” memo, circulated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security nearly a decade ago, would seem to discourage that; the memo directs agents to seek prior approval before entering places of worship to search for immigrants. In an email, an ICE spokesman told MinnPost that current ICE policy follows the “sensitive locations” directive.

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A Minnesota network

While the ELCA’s public declaration is unique, churches from many denominations are involved in the sanctuary movement, though they are reluctant to share specific examples of how they are helping undocumented immigrants.

Many of them are part of ISAIAH, a coalition of churches (and a handful of mosques) in Minnesota that has formed a network of sanctuary or sanctuary supporting congregations.

The Rev. JaNaé Bates, a United Church of Christ minister and ISAIAH’s communications director, said about 60 congregations are part of the network and that some of them have provided shelter for immigrants – some for as long as one year. Others have stopped short of providing living arrangements and instead have offered financial help and other kinds of support. Usually, the immigrants are taking steps toward legal status but have run into problems, Bates said.

Shir Tikvah, a synagogue in Minneapolis, is part of ISAIAH’s sanctuary network as well as of T’ruah, a nationwide group of about 70 sanctuary synagogues. Rabbi Michael Latz, Shir Tikvah’s senior rabbi, said congregations involved with T’ruah have housed people “of various states of legality.” They have built makeshift showers, turned classrooms into bedrooms and raised money for families. Some people have stayed with congregations for as long as 18 months, he said.

Latz, aware of the risks, called it a moral and ethical responsibility for congregations to help people who have been traumatized by fears of deportation, adding that “Jesus, Moses, Mohamed were all undocumented.”

Wary of the law

Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church is Tapestry’s fiscal agent, a sponsor that provides financial support for the young church. Both are part of the ELCA, but their differences – one suburban and largely white, the other urban and partly Latino – reflect a growing diversity within the ELCA. (Disclosure: This writer’s wife is an ELCA pastor). Consequently, their approaches to the momentum behind the sanctuary movement are illustrative.

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Shepherd of the Hills has proceeded with caution, for instance, recently forming a task force to consider how the congregation should respond to the denomination’s position.

At Tapestry, meanwhile, Melnick Gonzalez thinks of sanctuary as a logical next step in her congregation’s Latino outreach, which includes English classes and legal advice. Tapestry doesn’t have its own building to house undocumented immigrants, though Melnick Gonzalez said she could see such an arrangement as a laudable act of civil disobedience.

On a Sunday night in mid-November, about 30 people turned out to worship at the Richfield church where Tapestry holds its services. Melnick Gonzalez spoke in both English and Spanish to her congregation, a mixture of whites and Latinos. Afterward, the church served a spaghetti dinner in the basement.

Laura Gaitan, a Tapestry member who emigrated decades ago from Venezuela, said the sanctuary movement is a topic of discussion in the church but that many people are afraid of the consequences of breaking the law.

“What is most important is to be good to the people who need love,” she said, “to make sure that people are protected.”

Laura Gaitan
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Laura Gaitan, a Tapestry member, discussing the sanctuary movement at a spaghetti dinner in the basement of Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield.