Lent is always, at least in part, a journey of reflection and discovery. But this year that has been especially true for us here at the Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church. Recent changes in federal policy (some of them proposed, some of them already in effect), regarding our Muslim and immigrant friends and neighbors have concerned many of us. So, in Sunday school, in worship and in shared conversations, we have been exploring together over the last several weeks how we might respond, as a congregation to these changes.
Specifically, we’ve considered together the question of whether to become a Sanctuary Congregation. This process culminated last month when our Session voted to become what’s called a “Sanctuary Supporting Congregation.” As this was a consequential decision (one I personally support), I’m going to devote the balance of this column to addressing what this decision does and does not mean for us.
First, this vote does not mean that we all agree on the specifics of how to fix the immigration system here in the United States. As we learned in much more detail when Marisol Jimenez made her presentation on this topic after worship here on March 19th, immigration is an extremely complex issue, with a long history and many different aspects — economic, political, social and cultural, to name just the most prominent ones. We are certainly not all going to agree on how best to address it as a country.
But that does not mean we can’t find common ground for addressing the issue as a congregation. I believe this vote signals that as a community of faith, we are united in our desire to obey Christ’s command to love our neighbors. This command does not come with conditions or qualifications, or with a set of procedures we’re meant to follow before we take any specific actions. We are not instructed first to determine where our neighbor is from, or to check their residency documents before we show them care and compassion. We are only expected to love them.
And so, taking this vote, with what Session felt was the strong support of the congregation, is our way of declaring our intention to do just that.
But first a couple more words about what this vote to be a Sanctuary Supporting Congregation does not mean. It does not mean that undocumented immigrants will be seeking shelter and taking refuge in our sanctuary in order to avoid detention and deportation. The Chapel belongs to the college, not to us. And so we do not have the right or authority to unilaterally decide to make the sanctuary available to immigrants seeking shelter.
Finally, this decision does not commit us to any specific actions at the present time. This is mostly because (at least to my knowledge) no local churches are currently providing sanctuary, so our support is not yet needed.
What, then, does this vote do? Mostly, it puts us on alert and lays the ground work for a rapid response. If immigration enforcement actions do begin to take place here, and if Sanctuary Churches are pressed into this role of providing safe space for residents whose status in the United States is in jeopardy, we are ready to act. We can immediately engage in conversations with those congregations — and, more importantly, with the residents they are sheltering — about how we can support them.
What might this look like? These individuals or families may request help with getting their kids to and from school. Or with shopping for groceries. They may need legal counsel, and they may also need help paying for it. Or they may request — or the host church may request — support or assistance that we can’t yet foresee or anticipate.
What we do know, is that we are ready to put our love and support into action, should that be necessary. Speaking as a concerned citizen and as your pastor, that makes me both grateful and proud.