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Fear and Sanctuary

September 4, 2019


Trust me, I don't want to start this column by quoting Martin Luther because then you will surely stop reading.


But--please don't.


"What does this mean?" was one of Luther's key questions. And it applies more than ever to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's recent decision to become a “sanctuary church" for migrants, including those who entered the United States illegally.


So--what does this mean?


The honest answer is that even before that decision has been parsed and defined, controversy has arisen.


There was the damnable/laughable panel on Fox News with not a single Lutheran and gross mis-statements abounded. I won't dignify it with a critique; but Foxholers will--sadly--swallow it hook, line and bitter sinker.


And within the ELCA there was the expected breast-beating: Was this just a guilt-alleviating gesture for white people to feel better without any real obligations on their part? Was this the national church "posturing without having done the real work of anti-racism and dismantling of white privilege?'


Still, the word is out: Lutherans now claim to be a sanctuary body.

Now comes fear.


A dear friend said to me, "We-ell, I'm really not okay with this if it means breaking the law." Oh, we Lutherans are mostly wimps about that, I didn't say.


Nor did I say a word about slavery being legal in this country at one time, Jews not being permitted to own businesses in another country quite a bit more recently and women across the globe currently legally subjected to laws that---oh, right, I have a word limit for this column so I don't have enough space to get into that.


Someone else asked me, "Does this mean our church needs to provide shower facilities and cots and all that?" because she remembered--nervously--the sanctuary movement in the 1980's during which over 500 congregations from many denominations housed, fed and provided legal counsel to people fleeing civil conflict in Central America.


Then I also figured I ought to tell my congregation about the churchwide assembly's decision. I don't mince words in sermons. I mean--I have an obligation not to.


But I know we are all of us racist/xenophobic/selfish/fearful to one degree or another. So I was expecting blow-back last Sunday.


I didn't get any. I love these imperfect people I imperfectly serve.

Yet--I don't know what's in everybody's innermost hearts. But I know my parishioners cherish the commitment they have made to the full inclusion of all people here regarding LGBTQA issues. (Yep, bring your partner of whatever orientation, wear a dress if you normally feel you can't elsewhere; we also welcome doubters because, without a doubt, who isn't?)


And because of that I know that in our own small way, we will not swing toward Fox or navel-gaze on the shortcomings of the ELCA's stance. We are a small group of practical people.


We will somehow figure out what it means for us to be a sanctuary body locally. And because we are linked up with churches throughout the area either officially or because their pastors and I are colleagues, we will parse this new development practically.


Because we all--whether we are part of a faith community or not--have Emma Lazarus' poignant words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty to teach us. We have Emma Lazarus--a Jew born in the United States before the Civil War and whose family ancestry pre-dates the Revolution--to chart our course in these awful headwinds that baffle us:


Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


If we can't heed these words, then what kind of patriots are we?













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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.