In a first-of-its-kind move, a mainline American Protestant denomination has declared itself a “sanctuary church body,” pledging to provide immigrants shelter, advocacy, and “radical hospitality.” At last week’s churchwide meeting in Milwaukee, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) passed a measure, or “memorial,” in response to the Trump administration’s immigration policies and raids.
“It just keeps getting worse and worse in terms of unaccompanied children, separated families, detention centers that are just horrific,” says Evelyn Soto Straw, of the ELCA’s domestic mission programs. “So…as a church body, as the Lutheran church, we wanted to now act with our feet.”
What the Designation Entails
According to the measure, the ELCA will now:
Provide shelter to undocumented immigrants.
Respond to raids, deportations, and the criminalization of immigrants and refugees.
Advocate against mass detentions and work to share immigrants’ voices.
Take “prophetic action” to extend radical hospitality to immigrant communities.
These actions don’t violate U.S. law, the denomination says. A committee will work to clarify definitions, develop guidelines, and provide resources for congregations.
Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has authority to arrest undocumented immigrants anywhere, it usually avoids detaining people at “sensitive locations” such as churches.
Christopher Vergara, with the Metro New York Synod, calls the ELCA’s effort part of the “New Sanctuary Movement”—a “revived effort to protect undocumented migrants from needless jailing procedures and deportation.” Offering sanctuary, he adds, continues “an ancient biblical practice” of providing “refuge and asylum for people fleeing injustice.”
Vergara’s is one of several synods already offering such ministries. Another is in Oregon, where Bishop Laurie Larson Caesar has seen “very few negative ramifications.” Instead, she says, “amazing and transformational” results have occurred from listening to young people and leaders of color.
The Measure Faced Some Opposition
Although a clear majority of delegates voted for the measure, some criticized it. David Tindell of Wisconsin’s Northwest Synod says Christians must follow “the rule of law,” even when they don’t like the law or how it’s being enforced. Any changes must come “through our elected representatives,” he says.
Thomas Askegaard, from the ELCA’s Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, says the measure doesn’t go far enough. He contends the word sanctuary “is not well-defined” and “the Assembly does not have the authority to push synods and congregations…to take on the actions that many perceive a sanctuary to entail.”
During the ELCA’s gathering, some attendees marched to Milwaukee’s ICE office for a prayer vigil. The local bishop began by praying to “Jesus Christ, immigrant and Savior.” One sign read, “We put the protest back in Protestant.” The same day, ICE agents arrested 680 people in immigration raids in Mississippi.
“This church is committed to work toward just and humane policies affecting migrants in and outside the U.S.,” says the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA presiding bishop. She cites the synod’s AMMPARO initiative, which stands for Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities.
The ELCA has almost 3.5 million members and about 9,100 congregations. As a denomination that’s about 94 percent white, it has openly grappled with diversity issues and “white privilege.”