In the Gospel of Luke, a lawyer…perhaps an immigration lawyer… a lawyer tempts Jesus by asking how he can “inherit eternal life.”
“What is written in the law?” Jesus responds.
And the lawyer gives the textbook answer from the Torah: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart…; and [love] thy neighbor as thyself.”
When Jesus tells him just to follow the instruction he has correctly repeated, the lawyer, trying to justify himself, asks:
“But who is my neighbor?”
The instruction is simple. Love thy neighbor. And you can hear similar instruction from almost every religious tradition.
The instruction is simple. But there are few texts that have been the subject of more sermons.
Who are our neighbors?
Gaby Pacheco, born in Ecuador, was brought to the United States when she was seven years old. She has degrees in Music Education, Early Childhood Education and Special Ed. Her dream is to open a music center for autistic children.
In 2006, federal immigration agents raided her home, and she has been fighting deportation ever since. Gaby is one of the best known Dreamers and the former political director for United We Dream.
Who are our neighbors?
Saba Nafees was born in Pakistan and came to the US when she was 11. The only home she has known since then is Texas. She is a cancer researcher and college instructor. She is undocumented.
Who are our neighbors?
Denis Montero Diaz, another Dreamer and aspiring author, writes:
“We ask only to let us contribute freely. Let us walk beside you, shoulder to shoulder, on that same road our hands helped to pave.”
I call up the stories of these young people because the DACA program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which has given breathing room to some 800,000 young, undocumented Americans is now under threat, held hostage to funding for an $18 billion wall on our southern border.
And let me be clear, the issue of how to deal with our undocumented neighbors is not new with the Trump Administration. Even though President Obama put the DACA program in place, he also earned the title “deporter in chief.”
Sanctuary is a political question but not just a partisan issue. And it is a spiritual question for us all.
What is sanctuary? What does sanctuary mean… for us?
The history of religious sanctuary began long ago.
“Thus saith the Lord, ‘Though I had removed them [the Israelites] far away among the nations and though I had scattered them among the countries, yet I was a sanctuary for them for a while in the countries where they had gone.’”
I was a sanctuary for them for a while….
Those words from the Prophet Ezekiel were written in the 6th century BCE. The Israelites had been forced from their home and became exiles, strangers in a strange land.
That exile became foundational for the Israelites, a time when both faith and practice were tested, a time when sanctuary became a central religious theme.
Lord, prepare me, to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy. Tried and true.
Ezekiel’s theology centers around the spirit of God, the female Shekinah, the in-dwelling presence… the KJV sometimes offers “glory” as a translation and there is power in that presence, but also comfort and shelter and relief from deep pain. In the Quran, the term carries the connotation of tranquility… Allah the peace bringer…one of the thousand names of God.
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary for you.
Sanctuary, the word, comes to us from Latin…sanctuarium. The first part of the word, sancta or sancti, means that which is holy or even the holy people. The second…”arium”…means a container, something that holds.
Sanctuary is a place that holds that which is holy.
We call this space our sanctuary because here we invoke the spirit of life and here the people who would be holy gather. “This sanctuary made holy by our presence.” You’ve heard me use that phrase many times.
Historically, sanctuary was also a sacred place, such as a church, in which fugitives could not be arrested. This was recognized in English common law until the 17th century.
Today, sanctuary offered by churches no longer has any legal effect and is respected solely on the basis of tradition.
Many of us in my generation learned about sanctuary in the 1980’s when over 500 congregations, many of them Unitarian Universalist publicly sponsored and supported undocumented Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugee families. The UUA endorsed the effort. Sanctuary workers coordinated with activists in Mexico to smuggle families across the border. It operated as a kind of modern day underground railroad. That kind of physical sanctuary is being offered again today, in a few cases. Augustana Lutheran has hosted an undocumented neighbor here in Portland.
Are we, is First Unitarian, a Sanctuary Church? Yes.
We have answered the call to join the sanctuary movement. The Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice (IMIRJ) lists 25 Oregon faith communities that offer and support sanctuary. First Unitarian has been one …for some time. I signed the pledge in my role as Sr. Minister. Part of what you called me to do is to associate our congregation with movements for justice grounded in our principles.
Does that mean that we are providing physical sanctuary? No, though we would certainly consider that if we were asked. But we have not been asked…not to do that.
But we are offering AND SUPPORTING sanctuary.
Here is what we have pledged: to accompany undocumented people in our communities and actively resist any policies that promote the detention and deportation of millions of people.
Resist any policies that promote the detention and deportation of millions of people.
Do you support that pledge?
Physical sanctuary has become less a kind of underground railroad, and much more a strategic act of political advocacy, led and directed by immigrant communities, and with the cases of those who receive physical sanctuary carefully chosen for both likely success and for particular impact.
Again from the pledge, “We find ourselves entering a new phase of US history in which the politics of fear stoke an atmosphere of racism and xenophobia. The new administration has pledged to target, detain, and deport immigrants at unprecedented levels. As people of faith and conscience, we will take the initiative to defend and protect families and safeguard human rights….”
“We are dedicating ourselves to educate and activate our faith communities, to intensify our responses, and to lift up the voices of immigrant leaders and their families.”
As a Sanctuary Church we are called not to lead, but to follow and support the leadership of the immigrant community. We are called to be in solidarity.
I want to take a moment to praise the good work of our Immigrant Justice Action Group, which is sponsoring the All Church Dialogue this afternoon.
The leadership for this justice issue is broadly shared at First Unitarian. There are 300 subscribers to the Immigration Justice Google Group…which is a wonderful place to learn about this issue and about upcoming initiatives. IJAG regularly takes part in vigils and will sponsor one this spring. But there are many ways you can get involved.
The first priority for us, as a Sanctuary Church, is to become informed about immigration justice issues.
The second priority is to make a commitment to advocacy and action, following the lead of immigrant communities.
Educate and activate.
So come to the All Church Dialogue this afternoon. Or attend one of the quarterly IJAG meetings, which always include a significant educational component.
IJAG carries the water for us on this issue so well. They represent us on and provide leadership for the community wide Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice that keeps us in accountable relationship with immigrant leadership and our religious and secular allies.
One of the things that comes through loud and clear whenever we ask why folks join this church, why they come…why you come and why you contribute to First Unitarian is our strong witness for social justice.
Our justice work is not just what I preach from the pulpit. Or what our other ministers preach. Far from it.
Our volunteer leaders invest time in focusing on more than a dozen justice areas. I’ve spoken about the Immigration Justice Group this morning. But the Peace Action Group is also hard at work. As is the Economic Justice Action Group. And the Pride Group. And the Animal Ministry. The New Jim Crow. Community for Earth. Committee on Hunger and Homelessness. And…well I could go on.
Thanks to the energy of so many, we are able to pay attention to a wide range of justice issues. We are able to maintain relationships with other justice advocates in this community and this nation and around the world. We are able to have knowledgeable leaders who can speak to us and for us.
How does this all work?
None of the Action Groups can speak for the church as a whole…but they can and do speak for themselves, as an Action Group of First Unitarian…so that First Unitarian can be present at more of the right tables where the Beloved Community is being created.
The various Action Groups come together in the Social Justice Council, which meets monthly to share information and search for connections…
For example, the Economic Justice Action group is a strong partner of the Immigration Justice Action group.
In fact, the SJ Council has selected Sanctuary is the theme that all the Action Groups are reflecting on this year.
In the justice-making world this is called intersectionality, the effort to find connections so that more faces of an issue can be seen and addressed, so that more that needs attention is made visible.
The SJ Council is an intersectional gathering.
While the far right is advancing an intersectional politics of hate. Our best resistance is through the intersectional politics of love.
I almost feel that I should apologize for using sermon time to talk about Action Groups and Council. It feels a bit like preaching about committee work.
But we create our faith commitments through this work and these structures. This is not bureaucratic or theoretical. This is how we make our faith live…so that we can answer the call of love.
Sanctuary. Today it means far more than physical refuge offered to a few dozen families by a small number of courageous religious congregations.
We live in a Sanctuary City, in a Sanctuary County, in a Sanctuary State. Mayor Ted Wheeler recently proclaimed:
“We will not be complicit in the deportation of our neighbors.”
The City will not be complicit, nor will the state. They will not help with the deportations or the tearing apart of families…that is important but it is not sufficient because the detentions and deportations continue.
And the current national administration has every intention to increase them.
We need to prepare ourselves, we need to educate ourselves, we need to organize ourselves…
But as people of faith, what we need most is to ground ourselves.
Perhaps that question, “Who are our neighbors” is enough to remind you that how we treat one another is a profoundly spiritual question.
Who are our neighbors?
With Universalist in our name, there is not much choice in how we answer. The only question is how we will choose to live out our response.
The concept of sanctuary, I believe, forces us to look once again at how we imagine the Beloved Community.
What I believe is that there is no world worthy of being called Beloved in which the state tears families apart or in which fleeing toward hope, with only the clothes on your back, earns you only detention and a bus ride home.
Marisa Franco, one of the co-founders of Mijente, a Latinx advocacy group, writes:
“The destiny of our planet, our towns, and our lives is caught up in each other’s fates.”
Our lives are caught up in each other’s fates.
Our UU principles use different language…we speak of the interconnected web… but the thought and the hope that ground that thought are the same.
And the concept of Sanctuary continues to evolve.
Organizers from the Latinx, Black, Muslim and transgender communities are beginning to urge a simple and radical re-definition of sanctuary as dignity and protection for all. Expanded Sanctuary is the language being used.
Expanded Sanctuary (and I am quoting now) “is a policy approach that recognizes the need for our collective liberation.”
As Janae Bonsu, the National Public Policy chair of the Black Youth Project writes: “Without addressing safety and protections for all targeted communities, sanctuary is a misnomer…As long as the immigration and criminal justice systems are interconnected, creating real sanctuary cities is an issue of linked fate and real practical, principled solidarity.”
Practical, principled solidarity. Collective liberation.
Where do we sign up?
The history of religious sanctuary is long, beginning before Ezekiel called the Israelites to attention in Babylon. And the final chapters are not yet written.
What I know, is that the need for sanctuary for the body and the spirit is still much with us. And that while the Beloved Community remains a work in process, there will be times when each of us lives in exile. Times when we are on the outside, looking in. Times when we need sanctuary and must rely on the solidarity and strength of others.
But we are not meant to be exiles. Any of us. And that is not our destiny.
I believe as surely as I believe anything, that the Beloved Community can be real…if we can become aware and stay woke.
In the words of the Rev. David Blanchard:
We have been created to be free.
We have been created to know joy.
We have been created to love.
We were not made…
And we were not meant to be exiles.
Will you pray with me now?
Spirit of Life and of Love. Presence of the Holy that dwells within us and among us.
As we enter this New Year,
Amid the contentious cacophony of our public life,
Help us listen for the clear and insistent
Call of life and of love.
Help us join together to offer sanctuary where we can
And receive sanctuary when we are in need.
Help us move forward toward that vision of community
That grounds us in both memory and in hope.
Help us find, in this New Year, the clarity that sees
No exiles in the neighbors around us,
But a powerful pluralism in which our differences
Are strengths and not flaws.
Help us prepare ourselves to be sanctuaries
For the body and the spirit,
Places of refuge. Places of comfort. Places of hope.
And places of love.