MINNEAPOLIS – The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become the first North American denomination to declare itself a sanctuary church, committed to supporting and sheltering migrants entering the country.
The ELCA announced its decision last week at an annual assembly in Milwaukee, where leaders also participated in a march and prayer vigil at the Milwaukee Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
While individual churches from many faith traditions already are supporting refugees on the southern border and in their communities, this is the first time a denomination has urged its members to engage in actions ranging from providing living spaces for migrants to supporting them in immigration courts.
“This doesn’t mean that we are asking every church to provide shelter,” said the Rev. Rafael Malpica, executive director of the national ELCA Global Mission unit. “We’re saying, in your own way, find ways to help.”
“We’re not asking people to break the law,” he said.
Minnesota is home to the largest ELCA community in the nation, estimated at 670,000 members. Nationally, the ELCA has about 3.3 million members and 9,000 congregations.
The Lutherans have long been involved in social causes such as hunger and housing, the environment, racial justice and immigration services. The new sanctuary guidelines inject a new energy to that mix, encouraging congregations to explore ideas that are appropriate for them.
“It may mean providing space for people to live; providing financial and legal support to those who are working through the immigration system; or supporting other congregations and service providers,” according to the ELCA’s online explanation.
Churches also could host English as a second language classes, participate in vigils and marches to protest the detention of children, or just have “thoughtful conversations” with church members and the community about the issues faced by the migrants and the biblical response to it.
Some ELCA churches in Minnesota already had declared themselves sanctuary churches through a broader faith-based initiative that unfolded in recent years. One is Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul. Its pastor, the Rev. Jim Erlandson called the ELCA statement “a great idea” given the anti-immigrant climate brewing in this country and the many needs of migrants trying to escape violence in their homelands.
“The issue is so urgent because of what’s happening on the border,” Erlandson said. “On the news, people are seeing ICE raids, children in detention, people being tear gassed.”
His church is not now housing anyone, he said, but has supported immigrants in other ways, including advocating for them at the state legislature.
The Rev. Ingrid Rasmussen, is pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, one of the ELCA’s “sanctuary support” congregations. Her congregation applauded last weekend when she announced the news. But she recognizes that not every church is on board. About one in five delegates did not vote for the change, she noted.
Rasmussen believes the ELCA’s statement will embolden congregations on the fence about helping the immigrants and refugees. Holy Trinity Church members do immigrant advocacy work and provide direct support as well. For example, it just received a Guatemalan woman who learned she was pregnant, and is seeking diapers, stroller and other baby basics.
“The gospel of Jesus Christ leads us to embrace the stranger,” Rasmussen said.
Mary Campbell, director of the national ELCA’s initiative to accompany minor migrant children and their families facing deportation, said today’s anti-immigrant climate has been debilitating to migrant families. That’s why the church had to take a stand.
“There’s a very real fear migrants are feeling because of this (climate),” said Campbell. “Bishops told us that some people are afraid to go to church, afraid ICE will pick them up.”
Campbell believes that in the months ahead, congregations will begin exploring what the ELCA’s new statements means for them. But for now, it was time for the church to take a more visible and vocal stand, she said.
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