Room in the Inn: How to Become a Sanctuary Community 101

In these times, we must be “relentlessly imaginative and bold,” says Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Alison was a panelist along with Rev John Fife, former pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church and a co-founder of No More Deaths / No Mas Muertes, Amy Beth Willis, an organizer with the National Sanctuary Movement, and Rev. Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Austin, Texas. This webinar, “How To Become a Sanctuary Community 101” was hosted by PPF, the Synod of the Northeast, the National Sanctuary Movement, and the Community of Living Tradidtions at Stony Point Center.

Watch the webinar here: How to Become a Sanctuary Community 101

This webinar features panelists who have wisdom and experience in the theological, political, and logistical aspects of offering sanctuary to undocumented migrants. Joh Fife, who was a part of the movement in the 1980’s, spoke of the way that a congregation becomes spiritually transformed through the experience of offering sanctuary, saying that the congregation of Southside may have saved the lives of the families who took sanctuary in their church, “but they saved our souls.”

Jim Rigby spoke about his congregation’s experience of being sanctuary for a Guatemalan mother and her son helped contextualize the Moses story–that in a time of Pharaoh, when the U.S. acts like Pharoah, offering sanctuary is an invitation back into the Gospel when so often the Church has sided with Pharaoh and the US policies that impact other places like Guatemala, forcing people to flee violence and seek refuge in the United States, even without proper documentation. Even Pharaoh let Jesus and his family remain in Egypt until it was safe for them to return after Herrod’s violent policies.

And Amy Beth reminded us that, in this season of Advent, we wait for Christ, the incarnation of the divine, who comes among us as a refugee.

The Presbyterian Church has a history of offering sanctuary to protect the people who our society has deemed “the least of these.” And now, in a time when the president-elect has threatened to deport even more undocumented immigrants than Obama has, a time when we have seen escalating violence against migrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, Jews, and people of color many Presbyterians are turning to that prophetic legacy for courage and practical advice about how to enact sanctuary in their own contexts.

Alison reminds us in the webinar that “Sanctuary is local,” and that work is grounded in relationship with the people who are most affected by US policy–undocumented immigrants. For those of us who are not undcoumented and want to prepare our hearts and our buildings to be more open to our immigrant siblings, we must begin with building relationships and listening to what immigrants say they need.

A few first steps to preparing your community to offer sanctuary (just pick one and see where the Spirit leads you!):

  • Do a nonviolent direct action training… and then practice it…and do it again! There are lots of organizations that do Nonviolent Direct Action trainings. PPF will be doing one at our spring Activist Council meeting in Chicago April 27-29 (registration will go up in January). The Kingian Nonviolence Network is doing a 6-week online course that you can register for here.
  • Hold anti-racism and anti-oppression workshops – Some groups that do this well are CrossRoads Anti-Racism and Christian Peacemaker Teams, but there are probably other groups more locally that also do this important work for communities. The trainings and workshops are just the beginning, but they can give you tools for continuing this work in your community
  • Connect with local immigrant congregations or organizations in your community and see how you can support them – This might mean offering space and/or childcare for groups that need to meet for trainings and events for immigrants; this might mean showing up to rallies or supporting other events

There is always more room in the inn. As we await the Christ-child this Advent, let us take time to prepare the rooms of our churches, our homes, and our hearts to listen deeply to the needs of our siblings so that we can respond with courage, compassion, and wisdom.