On Being a Sanctuary Church

 In Pastor Jeff's Blog

As some of you may know, on August 8, 2019 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) passed a resolution to declare itself a “Sanctuary Denomination” at the Churchwide Assembly. Several people have asked what this means, and what it means for Prince of Peace. I’d like to address those issues.

The Bottom Line:

  • The resolution does not call us to do anything more than we are already doing to follow Jesus’ command to care for the needs of our neighbor.
  • The resolution does not call us to hide undocumented individuals from the authorities, or to break the law in any way.

Want to know more? Keep reading:

Let me begin by saying that while I agree with what the resolution intends, I found both the timing and the wording of the resolution less than helpful. In our polarized, politically charged environment I’m afraid that the resolution may have done more to divide the church than further our mission. Again, I agree with the resolution’s intention, but my heart for unity in the Body of Christ is aching.

The word “sanctuary” has been a sticking point for some and an enigma to others, so let me share a bit of biblical history. In addition to being a place of worship, God’s law mandated a number of sanctuary cities or “Cities of Refuge” throughout Israel. These cities are listed in Joshua 20:7-8. If someone committed involuntary manslaughter, the family of the deceased felt obligated to retaliate by killing the offender. Cities of Refuge were established to provide safety to the offender, protecting them from revenge. These individuals were then brought to trial and if found innocent they were protected from retribution, and if found guilty, punished.

This concept of sanctuary expanded in the American Church in the early 1980’s to provide a safe haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. Churches and Christian organizations provided shelter, food, clothing and legal advice. While there were acts of civil disobedience during this movement the focus was never on illegal activity.

The current resolution of the ELCA is a continuation of this biblically mandated movement, seeking to reflect the biblical call to justice, welcoming the stranger in our midst and loving our neighbor. This is not something new for Lutherans. Historically Lutherans have led the way in helping to support and settle refugees, including the Hmong and Somali populations here in Minnesota.

So, what does the resolution mean for Prince of Peace? Though we are part of the ELCA, resolutions of this kind are not binding upon ours or any other congregation. Truth is, we are already a “sanctuary church” without ever using those words. Everything the resolution calls us to do, Prince of Peace is already doing through our Mission Outpost, sheltering the homeless, providing a safe and welcoming worshiping community for all people regardless of race, gender or sexual identity, partnering with Feed My Starving Children and other ministries. We do these things in obedience to God’s call to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger. Could we do more? Of course. And we will as the Spirit moves and calls us.

Several people have expressed their concern to me that the ELCA is calling congregations to hide undocumented immigrants from the authorities. This is not so. Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, has explicitly stated, “Being a sanctuary denomination does not call for any person, congregation or synod to engage in any illegal actions.” The work that this resolution calls us to is not in conflict with the law. We have no intention of interfering with or defying the laws of our country.

Click here to find some helpful Talking Points from Bishop Eaton. If you have further questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to any of us on the pastoral staff.

Let me leave you with these words from Paul that echo in my heart:

Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all.

– Ephesians 4:1-6

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Showing 3 comments
  • Jan Larson

    Thanks, Pastor Jeff. This was a big help to me regarding sanctuary church and our purpose as it has always been.

  • Leslie

    Thanks Pastor Jeff for the explanation. Why worry about where someone comes from as it doesn’t matter when someone is in need and is looking for a welcome smile, hope or help. Leave the legal stuff up to those people who handle these matters. For me, I hope I can try to treat anyone as I would like to be treated – don’t over think it.

  • Gordon Hesselberg

    #1 If the Lutheran Church was already providing these services, why go to this extreem? #2. Why do yor refuse to use the the word “illegal” in describing those that your providing sanctuary? Then you turn around and say that your not doing anything illegal. #3. Why, did the Bishop denigrate the ELCA, by leading a stupid march on the USA governments ICE headquarters in Milwaukee. . Those that followed her are nothing but Liberal far Left activist, as she is. These far left activist have invaded our once beloved ELCA. The ELCA is a scam. The ELCA today is nothing but an empty shell. Teaching the Gospel isn’t a purpose any more. Nothing but a dispicable far Left cover. They lowered themselves with inviting the liberal far Left from Il. #4 Explain the involvement with the Liberal group from Illinois.

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