The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? …
For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter;
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock.
Even now he lifts up my head
above my enemies round about me….
You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.”
Your face, Lord, will I seek.
“He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling.” Listen to that. Hide me. What does it mean to be hidden away by God?
Where does the God of shelter, hiddenness, and secrecy fit into this moment? There is so much noise. There is so much blaring. There is the wholly understandable inclination many of us are feeling, myself included, to declare to the world: THIS IS WHO I AM, THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE, THIS IS WHERE I STAND, THIS IS WHAT I WILL DEFEND.
Our clarity on all these points is vital. We are living in dangerous times. We must remain clear. We must constantly remind ourselves and one another of what we know to be real, true, and good.
And now we must do this while also honoring the God of secrecy. The God who hides the oppressed and vulnerable in their day of trouble. Now is the time for us to start praying and discerning seriously our role, collectively, in providing sanctuary for those who need it.
Sanctuary is not a new idea. Currently there are some 450 congregations across the US involved in the New Sanctuary Movement, actively engaged in hosting, feeding, or financially supporting undocumented immigrant people who face deportation. A friend of my friends has been holed up in the basement of a Methodist church in Philadelphia since November in violation of federal immigration law. He is an arborist. He is raising three children with his partner. He has been apprehended at the border nine times, gone to prison for illegal reentry twice. He keeps returning of course because his children are here. The last time he was taken from them and detained by ICE, his twelve-year old daughter attempted suicide by drinking a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Sanctuary at the church is his last hope. He asked for their protection so that he, in turn, might protect his family.
This New Sanctuary Movement took off during the presidency of George W. Bush. It swelled during the Obama administration, which was responsible for the largest number of deportations in US history: 2.5 million people. The number of faith communities involved in this movement has now doubled since Trump’s election. The current movement was predated by the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, wherein churches sheltered refugees from war zones in Central America in defiance of restrictive federal laws on political asylum. That movement, of course, took its cues from the Underground Railroad.
The work of all three of these historic sanctuary movements must be considered victories. They are not the kind of victories we easily recognize. They are victories that happen under the cover of night, without fanfare, at enormous personal risk to everyone involved. We don’t get to brag to the media about the particulars of our good works. We don’t get to publish hard data about their results. We don’t know how many people were delivered by these movements from the brutality of the detention centers, from the death squads of El Salvador, from the southern plantations. We only know they were many, and yet not nearly enough. We know that sanctuary strategies have been one critical part of broader movements for transformation which engaged the whole structure of society—alone, they are not the solution. But they are an indispensable part of the solution. And we, as the church, are in an extraordinarily valuable position to pick up the unfinished business of these earlier movements. In these seemingly impossible times, we have an incredible amount of power and leverage at our disposal, if we are willing to take some risks together in defense of the right to sanctuary.
We’ve been working on our own sanctuary project at Chaplains on the Harbor, in Grays Harbor County, for the past few months and I want to offer some thoughts on that in service to Christ Episcopal Church’s discernment on the work of sanctuary. On the Harbor we have committed ourselves to being a sanctuary for the poor. In our context, in a county where logging jobs have been replaced by jail expansions, this means we are a sanctuary for the criminalized poor. We are a sanctuary for impoverished millennials who cannot find living-wage jobs. We are a sanctuary for homeless people in a town that openly despises and brutalizes them. We have locked our church doors against vigilantes hell-bent on scapegoating those without housing as responsible for every social ill in the community. In doing so we have surrounded ourselves with the scrappiest band of street leaders you can imagine. There is a great deal of drama and brawling we must manage to ensure that our sanctuary is also a sanctuary from interpersonal violence. But we are doing it. We are building it. And the results, while not easily quantified, are certainly kingdom-sized.
We do not wait for anybody to get clean or sober or clear up their outstanding warrants before inviting them in for shelter, meals, and the joy and labor of community life. We do not wait for that because God does not wait for that. The psalmist says, “Even now God lifts up my head above my enemies round me.” So we have chosen to be a sanctuary for those concretely, materially surrounded by a whole system of enemies. We are not interested in being a sanctuary for perfect victims because perfect victims do not exist. As poverty deepens and life gets more dangerous on the street, from Aberdeen to The Ave, people are going to have to do more dirt to survive. And time at the same they will have a greater need for sanctuary than ever. We have to respond to that here, risky and messy and exhausting as the task may be.
In this moment when we’ve got some people talking loud about building walls and defending borders we here, on 47th and Brooklyn, will go steadfastly and quietly to the work of building and defending sanctuary. We will very simply do our chores as Christians and give our anxiety about the consequences up to God.
We will endure these coming years by obeying God’s law above and against any other.
We will not bow down to false idols of wealth and white supremacy.
We will continue to seek and find the face of God in our neighbors in the doorways, alleys and squats of this neighborhood.
We will work to make this physical building a sanctuary and will ourselves, in our daily lives, with our own hands and feet and bodies, will extend that sanctuary outward.
We will do this because: The Lord is our light and our salvation. Whom then shall we fear?
We shall fear no one.
We shall fear no one.
We shall fear no one.