Sanctuary and the Family Stabilization Program
We are used to referring to the Sanctuary is the room in our church in which we worship, but the word “sanctuary” has a long tradition and an alternate meaning within the church. For centuries, churches have also been considered to be “sanctuaries” for those fleeing persecution: universally respected, holy places that are apart from the powers of this world, where the vulnerable can seek refuge.
At many critical points throughout history, the Church has recognized that there are those in our society in need of sanctuary. In the 1980s, immigrants were fleeing persecution in the horrific wars in Central America. While sanctuary was (and is) a legal gray area, churches offered sanctuary because they recognized that the United States government was heavily involved in creating the conditions from which undocumented people were fleeing. Today, churches are again offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants for many of the same reasons, recognizing that they are fleeing complex situations of poverty, violence and persecution that our current legal system is at best unequipped to address. At worst, our current politics with regard to immigrants are contributing to the problem: penalizing the poor, traumatizing families, and separating children from their parents. Our United Methodist tradition and our Christian beliefs urge us to step in.
Within the past few months, our church community has enjoyed making the acquaintance of several undocumented immigrants who were apprehended at the border and moved to the Tacoma or Seatac detention centers. When such people are released, they have no money or possessions and nowhere to stay in the short term. Members of our team have accompanied these detainees, offering them housing, company in shopping for essentials, and fellowship as they process their very traumatic experiences. The stories we have heard have been horrific, and we have witnessed firsthand the shortcomings (some circumstantial, some intentional) of our country’s immigration policies.
Based on its experience of accompanying immigrants in our community, the Immigration Team has submitted a proposal to the Church Council to provide sanctuary in our own church building to an undocumented immigrant who is at imminent risk of forced separation from his or her family. We propose to shelter and accompany such a person until his or her case is concluded or his or her situation changes so that he or she can return to his or her family. The benefits of doing so are obvious: it would be a chance for our community to engage deeply in relationship with a person who is directly affected by the global situation that we have read so much about. We would be helping to keep a local family together, rather than subjected to tragic and traumatic separation. And we would be standing as a beacon of hope in our community: a group of Christians that is able to transcend politics to simply offer hope and brotherhood, and that is willing to leverage our own power and position in society to help someone in need. The implications of doing this together are very exciting.
However, as we discern whether or not we will engage in this project, we must also be aware of the risks. Sanctuary is a legal gray area, which pits the separation of church and state against our immigration code. There is no law against offering sanctuary, but it is a felony to “harbor” an undocumented person with the intent of concealing them from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (ICE) It is important for the church to know that an essential part of Sanctuary would be publicity. Rather than harbor or hide someone, we would call a press conference and widely publicize our guests’ presence with us. We would do this as much to protect our guest against an accusation of hiding as ourselves against an accusation of harboring. To date, no church has been prosecuted for offering sanctuary. The fact that we would publicize offering sanctuary to someone should protect us against an accusation of harboring, but it does not guarantee protection. It is not likely, but it is possible, and something to be considered as we discern our path forward.
Another possibility is that we would attract an ICE raid to the church, in search of our guest. Like the risk of being accused of harboring, this risk exists more in the theoretical realm, as ICE recognizes “safe locations” such as schools, hospitals and churches in which it does not seek to apprehend people. While ICE has never yet disregarded the safe locations policy with regard to churches, it could do so, as the respect for safe locations is a policy and a courtesy, not a law. Nevertheless, the social contract that mandates separation of church and state protects us as well. ICE does not want to engender widespread public animosity by raiding a church, and this would be a protective factor for our guest: in fact, it is the whole point of sanctuary: to offer the safety of the church to someone who needs it.
When the church discerns offering sanctuary to an immigrant parent living among us, it must be real about what we are proposing. We are essentially using our privilege: as mainly white people, as people who live in an affluent area, as “respectable” people, as citizens, and most importantly as Christians...as a mantle to cover and protect one of the most vulnerable among us. If we do this, we will do it publicly and openly, as befits Christians who know that the moral authority of heaven is on our side. If we do it, we will do it in the proud tradition of countless churches in the past who have stood up against horrors that were legal in their time: churches that protested the Holocaust, for example, or that served on the Underground Railroad. If we do it, we can live in the relief and pride that we are taking a stand against the evil that is happening to poor families in our world today, and taking a stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. There is tremendous consolation and love available in this project: both for us and for our guest. But we must do it with our eyes open. As Jesus says to us in Matthew, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: therefore be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
We will have several opportunities for churchwide discussion of the Family Stabilization Program. On October 7, we will have a panel on sanctuary from 11:45 – 12:45 here in the sanctuary. On October 21, we will have a listening session in the Aldersgate Room, again from 11:45 -12:45. All members of the community are invited to come and share their thoughts about this proposal. It will also be discussed at the October 2nd Church Council meeting, and voted on at the November 5th Church Council meeting. Finally, if you would like to read a copy of the Family Stabilization Proposal, or peruse the appendices that accompany it, you may find them here and here.