August 12, 2019
Dear Southeastern Synod Friends,
Many of you have read or heard that the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, meeting in Milwaukee last week, declared that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is now a sanctuary denomination. The action of the Assembly has received a great deal of coverage in the press, including a front-page article in the Washington Post. There has been some concern about what this action by the Assembly means for ELCA congregations and people. Here are the three questions we’ve heard most often.
What is a sanctuary denomination?
At its most basic, becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith, not just politics. By its action, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the highest legislative authority in our church, declared that, in policy and practice, this church will encourage its members and others to learn what scripture teaches about welcoming the stranger and will use its resources to provide concrete resources to assist the most vulnerable migrants who are feeling the sharp edges of a broken immigration system.
In its vote, the Assembly affirmed that being a sanctuary denomination is about loving our neighbors, a call that is central to our faith. In baptism, we are brought into a covenantal relationship with Jesus Christ that commits us to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. Following the example of Martin Luther, we believe that advocacy on behalf of others is a crucial expression of baptismal identity. As a church, we have advocated for ending the detention of children and families. We have spoken out against family separation, sought a pathway to citizenship for community members that have lived in the U.S. for years. We have taken steps to address the root causes of migration in a way that honors the humanity of people who must flee their homes, and we have settled refugees from around the world.
What does the Assembly’s action mean for congregations?
In the ELCA, Churchwide, synods, and congregations are three expressions of one church. While we have mutual agreements about how we will live together in this church, neither Churchwide nor synods dictate to congregations how they are to live out their call to serve the neighbor. That means that being a sanctuary denomination will look different in different contexts. It may mean providing financial and legal support to people who are working through the immigration system or accompanying asylum seekers in court as advocates. It may mean advocating for change in our broken immigration system or marching as people of faith against the detention of children and families. It may mean visiting those in detention or providing housing for a person or family facing deportation. It may mean hosting English as a second language (ESL) classes or having thoughtful conversations about what our faith says about immigrants. Congregations will make their own decisions.
Where can we find information about how our congregation can be involved?
You can find information about some of the issues that lead to the crisis at the U.S. Southern border as well as ways your congregation can welcome people who are looking for asylum on the web page of the ELCA’s AMMPARO initiative: www.elca.org/ammparo.
Another helpful resource may be found in a reflection offered by the Rev. Andrew Lewis, pastor, Redeemer, Macon, GA, found here.
Violence, intolerance, and poverty have combined to produce more displaced people in our world today than ever before. Being a sanctuary denomination means that we, as church together, want to be public and vocal about caring for those who are most vulnerable in our world. We encourage all our congregations and members to have conversations about what sanctuary means to them and to discern together what action they might take to make welcome for our neighbor a reality. For followers of Jesus, welcoming people is not a political issue, it is a matter of faith.
May God bless your conversations and your decisions in Jesus’ name.
In Christ’s peace,