There has been a lot of talk recently about sanctuary congregations and cities. The designation is reserved for welcoming spaces for immigrants (particularly those who are undocumented) and vulnerable populations. The Sanctuary Movement began in the 1980’s. As violence escalated in Central America during the civil war, and thousands fled, Congress was under pressure to limit the number of people allowed access to the US from Central America. Congregations became sanctuaries to refugees fleeing the war who were looking for asylum. Like an underground railroad, refugees were secretly transported through the US to Canada where immigration laws were less restrictive.
Some congregations are actively discerning whether to become a sanctuary congregation. They are in the process of gathering information, attending training, and discussing the opportunity. I hope this blog, in some small way, sheds some light onto the process of becoming a sanctuary congregation.
Organized Religion is an important part of a societal system of checks and balances.
Congregations that believe in radical hospitality are congregations who welcome everyone. It is their belief in action. Allegiance and obedience to God come before country. So, when a government’s laws are contrary to the principles and beliefs of a congregation, the church has a reason to resist and protest the government. I think about this as societal checks and balances. The government is at its best when it is held accountable by other societal institutions.
Over the years, I’ve developed a theory that a thriving society requires well-functioning institutions to maintain stability and order. Access to a system of governance, education and healthcare, law and order, affordable housing and banking, commerce, a free press and media, and organized religion are all necessary elements if people are to flourish. There will always be endless debate about how each of these areas relate to the other and what the appropriate balance is to be. But this debate is what produces a better society.
These institutions, in addition to the services they offer, also provide a system of checks and balances. Not unlike the human body, each system is able to function at an optimal level if others systems are also functioning well. For example, when the banking system runs wild, the housing institution suffers. In more recent years, organized religion has been in decline with large numbers of people in the United States claiming no religious affiliation. The weakening of organized religion is contributing to (and is the result of) the instability of the larger society. Some call this regression.
In general, the purpose of a religious institution is to promote the highest possible level of functioning for the human. Faith communities differ in their approach to this effort to transform the human. But collectively they do this work by supporting individuals and families in fulfilling their God-given calling, with a focus on both eternal and temporal realities. As congregations support individuals and families, they advocate for them as they engage with other institutions. For example, when a minor commits a crime, it is not unusual for their pastor to stand with them as they engage with police and the criminal justice system. I’ve met with nursing care administrators to advocate for better care for a church member. In this way, the congregation is supporting the efforts of individuals and families.
Leaders need to define and act on their beliefs and core principles.
Congregations are at their best when leaders are developing and acting on their beliefs, core principles, values, and operating principles. A few years ago, prompted by a change in governance by the congregation I serve, I was asked to develop core principles. Over a two month period, I established six core principles. At the end of the two months, I spent the next six months distributing them widely to the congregation, I asked for feedback, preached a series on them, and invited the congregation to adopt them. Over the years, these core principles have been useful to me as a leader because they guide my thinking in evaluating programs and discerning direction.
When it comes to the issue of becoming a sanctuary congregation, having a set of core principles can help guide the thinking of the congregation:
- Is the concept of providing sanctuary consistent with the church’s beliefs and core principles? In what ways?
- What are leaders willing to do or not do when it comes to providing sanctuary?
- What is the congregation able to do or not do when it comes to ministering to undocumented immigrants?
- If a congregation is not able to provide “sanctuary,” but the practice is consistent with the congregation’s core principles and beliefs, what are other ways the congregation can support individuals and families?
Supporting the efforts of families.
Congregations are at their best when they support the efforts of families and individuals. It's important to pay attention to what families and individuals are trying to accomplish. What are their goals, aspirations, hopes, and dreams? How can the congregation support and resource these efforts? In this way, it is not just about being a sanctuary congregation. Each family and individual who walks through the doors of a congregation has a unique set of circumstances and problems. These problems are interrupting their ability to accomplish their goals and purpose in life. Supporting individuals and families is about helping them achieve their goals and fulfilling their purpose.
Congregations are at their best when they walk alongside families, encourage their progress, and advocate for access to resources and opportunities. When an undocumented family comes to the church for help, the question is not “should we support them?” The question is “how can we support them in ways that are consistent with our core principles and beliefs?” Like any family that comes to a congregation for support, the first step is to discover the specific needs of the family? From there, congregational leaders determine whether they are able to meet the needs. When a congregation is able to support a family, plans are made to do just that. When a congregation is not able to assist for one reason or another, it is time for leaders to do their best thinking with families and individuals. What are viable next steps for this family or individual? What are the community resources that are available? Each step of the process is an opportunity to participate in thinking.
In the process of discovering needs, it may be determined that the family requires more time to evaluate their options and consider their choices. In the case of an undocumented family, leaders may determine that providing sanctuary is something they can provide so that the family has time to discern what to do. It may also be a time for congregational leaders to work with other community leaders from various institutions. Here again, congregational leaders will need to consider what they can and can’t do. Daily and/or weekly evaluations will be required as this is a process.
My effort in this blog post is to show that making a decision about becoming a sanctuary congregation is no different than any other decision. It requires congregational leaders to think about what a congregation can do or cannot do based on core principles and beliefs. More risk may be involved with this effort for both families (or individuals) and the congregation, but all ministry has a level of risk that needs to be responsibly managed. How does a congregational leader assess and evaluate risk? What structures in the church provide opportunities to think about risk assessment? Who are the good thinkers in the congregation that can come alongside congregational leaders as they do this important work? Are you sensing a theme here? Indeed! How can the decision to offer sanctuary be an extension of the everyday efforts of a congregation? How can a congregation prepare itself better to meet the needs of everyday people, regardless of the challenges they face? How can the possibility before us of hosting a family with sanctuary be an opportunity to become more responsible in the ways we engage individuals and families in the community? How can a congregation become clearer about its core principles and beliefs and be more responsible for acting on them?
I think it’s worth noting here that congregations as institutions also have needs. Serving the institutional needs enables the congregation to continue to support individuals and families. However, when congregational needs are not met, the focus can shift away from supporting individuals and families. When this happens, institutions lose their balance as they put more effort into supporting the institution. Successful leaders know that when an organization sticks to its mission of supporting families and individuals through their core principles, institutional needs will be met.
Staying connected with the community.
It is essential for congregational leaders to be in good, viable contact with key community leaders. I learned this early in my career. I was encouraged during my first appointment to spend the first month meeting the police and fire chiefs, the mayor, alderman and other elected officials, and leaders of various community service providers. Ongoing and consistent contact with these leaders is vital and necessary if families and individuals are to be supported by the congregation. In my experiences, leaders who actively build relationships with strategic partners in the community are seen as an important resource to the community.
Knowing where political leaders stand on key issues, including immigration and refugees, is vital knowledge when working with immigrants. Knowing what resources are available in the community is useful in providing support to families and individuals. Knowing how key leaders in the community think about important issues helps a congregational leader know how to advocate for an individual and family.
By seeking out the strengths and resources of a community, congregational leaders are seen as a source of strength and a resource. No matter the amount of time a leader resides in a community, it doesn’t take long to build up these networks. Congregational leaders who put off or avoid building these relationships lack the necessary legs to stand on when the stability of a community begins to shift during challenging times.
Congregations can be a resource for any family.
Reframing the sanctuary movement into the broader efforts of a congregation provides a methodology for discerning how a congregation will respond to the needs of an immigrant family and helps reduce the level of anxiety that will inevitably accompany such an effort. Whether the family is struggling with an immigration status, challenges with raising children, unemployment, homelessness, a health crisis, criminal activity, death, or any number of problems, congregational leaders can ask themselves these questions:
- What is this family or individual trying to accomplish? How is the problem defined?
- How do the needs of this family or individual connect to the core principles of the congregation?
- As a leader, what am I willing to do and not do for this family or individual?
- How can I support the best efforts of this family or individual to survive and thrive?
- What are other resources in the congregation or community that might serve this family in their effort to move forward?
- Is there evidence based on this interaction that the core principles of the congregation need to be examined and changed? What is the evidence? How does one go about thinking about it?
- Is there evidence based on this encounter that what I’m willing to do or not do needs to be examined and changed? What is the evidence? How does one go about thinking about it?
As always, please provide your thoughts in the comment section. Does this way of thinking make sense? How do you think about this differently? What has been your experience of operating out of a set of core principles?