ISAIAH, a faith-based coalition of more than 100 congregations fighting for racial and economic justice, began working on sanctuary “right after last November’s election,” says JaNae Bates, a United Church of Christ minister. She is ISAIAH’s communications director and deeply involved in sanctuary forums and organizing.
A sanctuary congregation creates what ISAIAH calls “a sacred space of refuge” for immigrants who are in immediate danger of deportation. These individuals or families live within the place of worship for an undetermined period of time. Sanctuary does not mean hiding: both the congregation and the immigrants in sanctuary tend to agree to be very public. The religious congregation offers hospitality and fellowship, along with physical resources such as washing and cooking facilities, food, clothing, medical care and legal support.
At least 40 Minnesota religious congregations have declared that they will offer sanctuary. Sanctuary is a risk – financially and even legally – and a commitment of time and resources. Most of all, choosing to be a sanctuary congregation means standing up and witnessing – standing in opposition to U.S. immigration policies and practices.
Roots in social justice
ISAIAH’s first sanctuary meeting landed in the middle of a November snow and ice storm. Organizers revised their expectations downward from 75 to 50 people – and were overwhelmed when more than 200 faith leaders and clergy showed up.
Rev. Victoria Safford, now senior pastor at White Bear Unitarian Universalist church, came to the meeting with a delegation from her church. At the end of the meeting, ISAIAH organizers asked who would commit to declaring sanctuary.
Her group texted the board president from the meeting, Safford recalls. Moved by “the urgency of the moment and the clear call to us from a community under siege,” the White Bear congregation said “yes” on the spot.
Sanctuary is not a new idea for churches. Decades ago, Safford served at a church in North Hampton, Massachusetts, that had been part of the Underground Railroad in the 19th century. The sanctuary movement claims religious roots in the churches that hid and sheltered slaves making their way to Canada before the Civil War.
Safford also taught in Vermont, where she encountered the 1980s sanctuary movement. Her Vermont community worked with a Guatemalan family fleeing the civil war and genocide in that country.
Assessing the risk
After that first meeting, Safford says she and the church members went home and began “backing up the process.” That meant congregational meetings to discuss sanctuary, civil disobedience, and “what it means to stand in solidarity with a community of color experiencing perilous oppression.”
Education starts at home, as members of congregations learn about U.S. immigration policy, about immigrants and about refugees. The meetings and discussions are essential to “softening hearts to people who will be living with them,” Bates says. Then they can begin physically preparing living spaces within the building and preparing financially.
Choosing sanctuary is a tough and risky decision for immigrants, says Bates. “You have to consider that you are taking yourself out of what you know as home and community and placing yourself in another one entirely. You have to take very seriously the fact that you may be confined to be within the same four walls for a very long time.” No one is yet living in sanctuary in Minnesota, as of press time.
Bates says sanctuary is “absolutely” risky for congregations, too. “I would be cautious about anyone who didn’t consider it a risk. … We want congregations to take very seriously what this means.”
Safford acknowledges risks, including the possibility that ministers at sanctuary churches could be arrested. But, she says, “It’s not high on my list of concerns. I’m more concerned about failing to answer a clear call to help and to resist when it comes.” Besides, she adds, “We have a lot less to lose than [do] the 90,000 undocumented people in Minnesota who could be deported or detained at any minute.”
Besides the Minnesota congregations offering sanctuary, many others have committed to support them with volunteers, physical and financial resources, prayer and pressure on public officials.
The sanctuary movement continues to grow in Minnesota and across the country. Bates says ISAIAH is “constantly getting questions” and holds frequent forums on sanctuary. She insists that the movement is rooted in scriptures and faith. “God is not a God who would endorse hate,” she says. “God is not a God who would endorse separation of families. God says quite the opposite – welcoming the stranger, loving the foreigner, treating them as one of your own.”
For Safford, the line between spirituality and politics blurs. “The only faith I can hold with integrity is one that is lived out in word and in action,” she says. “And the only action that can have any integrity is one that is grounded in some sense of justice, hope and equality.”