Dear Fellow Christians

I don’t write about my faith much. It’s deeply personal and I often don’t feel like I can find the right words to convey how I experience it. I am also aware that as a Christian I hold privilege in my society and I try to quiet my privilege when I can. However, Christians are being quiet when we ought to be using our voices to protect others. More than using our words we should be showing our faith in our actions. That it is what Jesus would do should be the strongest case for Sanctuary if you are a Christian. 

In the United States, Sanctuary is when a house of faith accepts someone to take sanctuary within their building. Any house of faith can do this but I’ll say church for the purpose of this blog since I am appealing to Christians and because Christians have more protections than any other religion in the United States. Churches should be passing those protections on to the most vulnerable. Sanctuary has been used in an organized fashion for decades to protect immigrants from deportation. While there is no law prohibiting federal officers from going into a church a removing someone, the government has a practice of not violating “sensitive spaces” like hospitals, schools, and churches. To my knowledge Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has never violated a church. If an immigrant is in danger of deportation they can seek sanctuary within a church and live in relative safety.

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Although many Christians would say that the laws of God are higher than the laws of man, most Christians also want to obey United States law and feel anxious about defying the federal government in this way. However, offering Sanctuary is not the same as harboring a fugitive. The main difference between harboring and providing sanctuary is that harboring would be hiding. Sanctuary is a public act. If a church welcomes an individual or family, their attorney would notify ICE of their location in the church, once they were safely inside. The church would not be engaging in an illegal act of hiding a criminal. 

The option of seeking sanctuary is typically used when the immigrant has a legal route to citizenship or permanent residency and they are just waiting for their case to go through the process. This process can take months or years. Living in sanctuary protects the person from being deported before they obtain legal status. Being deported would stop the process. But living in sanctuary requires the person to remain in the church nearly constantly. Every time they step outside, they are at risk of being picked up by ICE. They can’t work, go to their kid’s school, visit friends or family, or go for a walk. This isn’t a situation most people would enter into lightly. This is a last resort, an act of desperation when the alternatives are worse than voluntary house arrest. Think about what your situation would have to be for you to agree to live like this for years. And if you were in that situation and knocked on a church door, would you expect them to welcome you?

You should expect it. The Bible has told us again and again that we are to welcome immigrants.

“You shall love the immigrant.” -Deuteronomy 10:19

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native born.” -Leviticus 19:34

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him.” -Exodus 22:21

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” –Mark 12:31

Churches in multiple cities in the United States have made the commitment to shelter immigrant families while our government targets them. In Philadelphia, where I proudly live, the First United Methodist Church of Germantown and the Church of the Advocate has been offering Sanctuary to immigrant families targeted by ICE. In Cleveland, Forest Hill Presbyterian Church, Pilgrim UCC, and St. Andrew Episcopal Church have had people in sanctuary since the Trump administration has increased their targeting of immigrants. Denomination does not matter. Christians of all kinds are called to protect immigrants. 

(Oneita Thompson prays in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. She and her husband, Clive, are from Jamaica and were living in South Jersey since 2004 before receiving deportation orders and seeking sanctuary at the church.  Heather Khalifa/ Philadelphia Inquirer)

(Oneita Thompson prays in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. She and her husband, Clive, are from Jamaica and were living in South Jersey since 2004 before receiving deportation orders and seeking sanctuary at the church. Heather Khalifa/ Philadelphia Inquirer)

What each church must decide is if there are any impediments to welcoming an immigrant or immigrant family into their circle and offering Sanctuary. It is a moral responsibility of churches to offer sanctuary if they can because no other organization can provide it. 

 “And I was a stranger, but you welcomed me.”

As we sang this last Sunday I was filled with joy at the thought that Christians across the United States are putting this thought into action by opening their doors and welcoming families. Is that not at the heart of our faith that we strive to be more like Jesus in the ways that we treat each other? Churches should embrace the opportunity to welcome immigrant families into their circles—not just because they are often fellow Christians, not just because they are our neighbors, not just because they are in need, but because of the opportunity to be closer to God through this act of compassion towards His children. 

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I put this call to action out to Christians but it extends to people of other faiths, spirituality, and atheists as well. There are many with no religious affiliation who have great compassion for the challenges immigrants face in the United States. I encourage anyone moved to support the Sanctuary movement by connecting with churches or organizations that are leading. New Sanctuary Movement, based in Philadelphia, is an immigrant lead non-profit working to support the Sanctuary movement and anyone can donate to help them this work. 

Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist

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