Do you remember Elvira Arellano? She was an illegal immigrant who made headlines in fall of 2007 for claiming sanctuary in a Chicago church. This headline led me to study my Bible about the role of sanctuary cities and a word study on refuge. At the time, the debate over illegal immigration died down, although as current headlines show the debate never went away.
Also in the fall of 2007, the city of Simi Valley, California sent a bill of $40,000.00 to a local church for the police required to keep order during a protest outside their doors. The protest wasn't organized by them, wasn't planned by them, and really wasn't even participated in by them. But the rationale was that since by their actions, allowing an illegal immigrant to seek refuge in their church, they incited the protest and that they should be the ones held responsible. Yeah, that made perfect sense.
If this would have held up, it would have set a dangerous precedent for the church. Would a church be held financially responsible if there's a protest on their stance against homosexuality? Or what if a synagogue is vandalized with anti-Semitic tagging, would you hold them responsible? At the time, most agreed that this was an infringement on that church's First Amendment right and a ploy to passive-aggressively stake their ground on the illegal immigration debate.
But is this something we, the church, Christ's ambassadors, should be getting involved in in the first place? There's no legal standard for a church being a sanctuary for fugitives. Rather it's an unwritten rule, kind of like fighting on Holy Ground in Highlander. But what's the history behind it? Obviously our country began as a refuge for many seeking religious freedom. The motivation behind the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment was to keep the government from dictating a state religion so any faith could be practiced freely. Churches were central as sanctuaries pre-abolition just as they were involved during the Civil Rights Movement. So there's historical precedent. But is there Biblical precedent?
When settling in Israel, the refugees from Egypt were given instructions by God to set aside "sanctuary cities". These were cities where one could flee if accused of murder so that their case could be heard by the elders before they were killed in revenge. The fine print though, was that they had to be innocent. Romans instructs us that we should obey the law of the land because every authority on Earth is there but for the grace of God. So is it right for a church to be a sanctuary for someone breaking the law, even if we don't agree with that law?
Another refugee from authorities wrote many Psalms about God being his only refuge. David was being hunted down and though he lived in caves and some towns let him hide, he knew that his only refuge was God Almighty.
But we are also commanded not to "oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9) And let's not forget about the Good Samaritan, a foreigner. We also read in James, "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:15-16)
So what should we do? Where's the line between giving to a "foreigner" in need and giving them employment? Where's the line between being sympathetic to illegal immigrants and offering your church as a sanctuary? First, we need to heed to existing laws. Second, we need to reach out to meet the needs of those who are here illegally. They are here for a reason, after all; Mexico is an absolute mess between its economy, political corruption, and rampant violence between rival drug lords. Finally third, we need to be careful not to skate on the thin ice of the hot political topic du jour. We need to let our lights shine, be the salt of the earth, and represent Christ in all we do. My question for all those "safe churches", are you doing everything you can to help the immigrant you're harboring to get on a path to citizenship? What are the circumstances of him or her facing deportation (immigration officers have their hands too full to want to deport someone 'just because')? Or are you just seeking headlines?
Yes, families are affected, and depending on where you live chances are there is someone in your congregation who is here illegally. But the church as an institution exists to meet the needs of its parishioners. In this case, that means helping them gain citizenship, legally. Sanctuary in the Bible requires innocence, and unfortunately none of us on either side of this debate are wholly innocent.