September’s “From the Pastor”: Lord, Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary

Dear friends in Christ,

Last month, almost a thousand voting members from ELCA congregations all around the country and Caribbean gathered in Milwaukee for the Churchwide Assembly. This gathering happens once every three years and is the highest legislative body in our denomination.

The assembly accomplished a variety of tasks, which are listed later in the Chatter, but I want to focus on one specific action that later became the topic of a brief panel discussion on Fox News. The assembly voted to adopt a memorial (a suggestion from another synod) to designate the ELCA a “sanctuary church body.”

What does this mean? The commenters on Fox News weren’t quite sure, and to be fair, I don’t think most of us know what this actually means. Here’s some language (borrowed from the ELCA) that I have found helpful: Being a “sanctuary church body” means that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. (now back to my own pondering) This means it is not a matter of politics. Jesus taught us to welcome the widow, the orphan, and the alien, as do the Hebrew Scriptures, and we are called to do this every day, not just on Sunday.

Of course, this brings up a bunch more questions. Although I think we could probably all agree that the immigration system in our country is broken, we probably have a range of different thoughts about how to fix it.  Before you start envisioning me in a mug shot, don’t worry: being a “sanctuary church body” does not mean we are going to start engaging in any illegal actions. (Fox News was a little confused about that issue.)

Being a sanctuary church looks different for different congregations and for different individuals. Our faith calls us to love our neighbors, and that’s what this is really about. How do we best love our neighbors who are in vulnerable situations? The ELCA already does this in lots of ways. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services works to resettle and support those who are coming to make their homes here, as well as making sure those applying for asylum understand how to do so according to law. The ELCA advocates for those being detained to be housed and treated humanely, and for families to not be separated. We (the ELCA) also support a program called AMMPARO, which accompanies minors who are fleeing violence in their home countries.  Addressing the root causes of migration is crucial as well. The ELCA does that by supporting microenterprise programs in Central America that keep minors out of gangs and help them start their own businesses and rebuild their communities. But there is always more to be done.

Remember, the Lutheran church historically is a church of immigrants and refugees—Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and others. After World War II, one in six Lutherans was either displaced or was a refugee. And now our church is more diverse than ever—on a normal Sunday, ELCA congregations worship in over thirty languages. Becoming a “sanctuary church body” flows from this heritage and from the teachings of Jesus.

The conversation about this term “sanctuary church body” is going to continue. The assembly called for a study to be done across the ELCA to further explore what this could mean. And the conversation can happen here too. If you would like to talk further, or would like more resources to explore as you think about this matter, please reach out to me directly. I’m glad to share the resources I’ve found and meet for conversation.

Together in Christ,
Pastor Katie Yahns

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