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Rethinking Sanctuary


The word conjures mental images: stained glass, wooden seats, an organ. It's a church word. The space where Christians worship is called a sanctuary.

When I show up at a church building on a Sunday morning, the question I'm most ready to ask is "Where is the sanctuary?"

But being in a sanctuary is different than finding sanctuary. The challenge for today, though, is that fewer and fewer people want to know where the sanctuary is. More and more, people want to know if they can actually have sanctuary.

The concern for the community of faith does not so much regard the where of the sanctuary, it concerns the how of sanctuary. Confused?

Sanctuary :

1. a place of refuge or safety.
"people automatically sought a sanctuary in time of trouble"

2. a nature reserve.
"a bird sanctuary"

3. a holy place; a temple or church.
the inmost recess or holiest part of a temple or church.
the part of the chancel of a church containing the high altar.

The word "sanctuary" has been kicked around the news with great frequency lately. We have heard talk of "sanctuary cities." Organizations claim to "offer sanctuary." The word has several definitions depending on the context.

While most faith communities identify sanctuary closely with the third definition above, an increasing number have felt called to identify more closely with the first definition: A sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety. In some instances, sanctuary is something they offer.

First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans is one congregation rethinking its view of sanctuary. The congregation was born from the remnants of two congregations hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. The church facility became a safe place for those who had lost their physical church home and for others recovering in the wake of the hurricane.

First Grace also became a sanctuary for reconciliation. One of the congregations incorporating into First Grace was predominantly white, the other predominantly black. In learning to share life together, they have modeled hospitality. To them, it only seemed natural that when many of their immigrant neighbors recently felt threatened with deportation, First Grace offered sanctuary — to be a refuge — since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement generally will not enter churches or hospitals to take people into custody.

Erin Guzman, author of "Welcoming the Stranger, Loving the Refugee: Re-Visioning History, Re-Visiting Sanctuary, and Building Hospitality for Central American Refugees," notes that some congregations feel compelled to offer sanctuary because of what they read in Scripture. She says, "Both Jewish and Christian holy books are filled with examples of providing hospitality for 'the stranger' and society's most vulnerable." There are numerous stories of immigrants in scripture. "God repeatedly reminds the Israelites that they were once strangers in the land of Egypt and therefore should not harm the 'foreigners' seeking shelter or refuge in their communities." (Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:33; Deut. 10:19)

Ms. Guzman suggests many are rethinking their understanding of sanctuary, "Today, there is a renewed call to embody and claim sanctuary as a way of standing with those who are most vulnerable, and doing so with firm faith convictions."

Many churches are finding ways not only to build sanctuaries, but to practice sanctuary. Some, like McKendree United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, host transitional housing spaces for people trying to get back on their feet. Others, like CASS Community Center in Michigan, have built a village of tiny homes for those needing sanctuary from homelessness. Still more host safe spaces for mental health support groups, like Fresh Hope. Others host recovery groups for those seeking sanctuary from addiction. Wherever faith communities are offering safe space for the most vulnerable of society, there is sanctuary.

As sanctuary becomes less about place and more about practice, then it can also begin to be something that is done not only in community, but also individually. How many of us have been called by friends looking for a safe space and sympathetic ear into which they can unload about problems or frustrating situations? In such moments, we become sanctuary. When we offer refuge against the judgments and threats of the world, we also offer holy space for others to feel the calming presence of God.

We all have neighbors searching for safe haven. From immigrants seeking to hold their families together to young people longing for a break from voices of criticism and judgment. "Sanctuary is not a theoretical gesture but a tangible witness of God's justice-seeking love," said Ms. Guzman. "It gives new meaning to the Incarnation [God being with us] by pushing us to confront the reality of God's presence in those who are vulnerable and seeking protection."

"Sanctuary reveals that faith communities are … actually positioned on the frontlines of where important struggles might take place." Our call is to identify the ways in which we can step toward the frontlines of where power meets the vulnerable.

How do you envision the practice of sanctuary? Do you provide safe space for society's most vulnerable? Are there organizations or faith communities around you who you could join in their practices of sanctuary?

Do you need sanctuary? You can use our Find-a-church link to connect with a United Methodist church and explore a community of care in your local area.

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