Why Sanctuary? #sanctuary2014 #not1more #LetLuisStay

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I’m often told my blog posts are too long. Well, I’m afraid this one is no exception. Part of the problem may be I just don’t blog often enough. It’s hard for me to just “go for the soundbite,” as I’m wondering if that’s part of the problem in our public civil discourses. We are so interested in the soundbites (giving and hearing) that we are unable to go deeper into the very complex issues that are plaguing our politics (the practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community—in other words, how we organize as communities of people).

If you’re still reading this post, thanks!

I have been receiving a fair number of calls, emails and letters since the church I serve as pastor, University Presbyterian Church, decided to offer sanctuary to Luis Lopez Acabal, an undocumented young man from Guatemala. I have sought to be faithful in responding to as many as I can when folks leave phone numbers or contact info. I have sought to engage with respect and dignity. Unfortunately, not everyone who has called has the same plan.

Luis came to the U.S. when he was 16 years old seeking asylum from his home country where he was being threatened to join a gang. In fact, as he sought shelter in a church in his home town, gang members entered the church and told Luis, “You have 24 hours to join, leave, or die.”  Within a few hours his family sent him north in hopes that he would survive the nearly 2,500 mile trip through Mexico and find freedom from the violence in the U.S. It took him more than a month, stopping to work and earn money for the bus fair to the next town.

Shortly after arriving in the U.S., he found work despite his undocumented status. One night on his way home he was stopped by police. He had no license and no documentation. ICE was notified and they picked him up. He applied for asylum, but was denied. He has since married a woman with two children, one of whom has autism. Despite his struggles with our convoluted and severely broken immigration system to stay in the U.S., he has supported his wife, Mayra, and her two children who call Luis their father.

I received word of his case and his fear of being deported and being sent back to Guatemala,a sure death sentence, through a colleague of mine. I presented it to the church’s session (board of ruling elders) as a devotional and shared my own wrestling with the request and one of many scriptures that calls us to reach out to and welcome the “stranger” living among us one of our own. Specifically, I shared Matthew 25.31-40:

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (NRSV)

In June of this year session had discussed another potential sanctuary request, and agreed to continue the conversation about whether or not UPC was being called by God to engage in some way in this seeming resurgence of the 1980s Sanctuary Movement. After over an hour of discussion and discernment on the evening of August 26th, the session voted 6-2 to offer sanctuary to Luis. Since then it has been a rush of meetings, strategizing, planning, preparing, and then finally the day. The press conference was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 4th, and was supposed to be at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Phoenix. Luis and his attorney were going to submit one more request for a Stay of Removal. At the last minute, the attorney felt it was too risky for Luis to submit the request in person (a requirement) as he could be detained while submitting his request. So the press conference was moved to 9:30 a.m. at UPC, while the attorney submitted a request for reconsideration to Jon Gurule, ICE Detention and Removal Operations deputy field office director of in Phoenix.

Sanctuary Begins
At least a dozen faith leaders from around Tempe and Phoenix arrived in solidarity with UPC’s decision, along with about a dozen local news organizations (a sampling: here, here, here, and here), as well as some national coverage.

Most of the calls we have received in response have been very positive and supportive of our session’s decision. A few people have voiced their opposition to our action, even stating that we are violating scripture by offering Luis sanctuary. I have a hard time responding to the latter as our scripture is full of statements calling on God’s people to welcome the stranger and even love our enemies, let alone our neighbors. I have offered these scriptures to many of the callers, who have more often than not called me rather unflattering names and hung up. As far as I am concerned, Luis is our neighbor and a child of God, and, therefore, deserving of our love and compassion. I am compelled by Christ and the very love of God to see Luis and so many in his position as nothing less.

Some Rationale
Early in the life of the Israelite people, from whom we Christians gain much of our tradition and heritage, God called on the people through the prophet Moses to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10.19, NRSV). The Hebrew prophets are full of calls for the people of Israel to never forget their past, reminding them that they have been strangers in lands that were not their own, with unfamiliar customs and languages (Psalm 94, 146.9, Jeremiah 7.5-8, Ezekiel 47.23, etc.). They were called to remember their struggles and have compassion on those who live among them. I cannot help but see direct parallels to the present day situation here in the U.S. It has been said time and again that we are a “nation of immigrants.” If many scholars are correct in their hypothesis, even our native peoples migrated from Europe and Asia (commonly referred to as Eurasia) thousands of years ago.

I am not an archeological or historical scholar. I am a theologian. That means look at history and the present and try to help us understand what God has done, why God has done it, to help us understand better what God might be doing now and where God might be calling us into the future. If the Biblical witness has any value, I believe it has a constant thread that holds all the disparate pieces together: God created in order to form community, which is God’s nature. In community, healthy community, we are able to experience the love of God as we seek to love one another. When community falls apart is when the needs or fears of an individual or a group of individuals are given so much power as to lead us away from God’s desires, resulting in xenophobia and exclusion.

My hope for this action and the growing energy around immigration in the U.S. (nearly 80% of the people in the U.S. want to see some sort of path to citizenship (62%) or legal residency (17%) for the nearly 12 million undocumented people already living here), is that we can seek to listen and understand one another, rather than shut each other out with personal attacks and unhelpful language. Some concerns about border security are valid, and they need to be part of our national debate. Others are ridiculous and grounded in paranoia. We need to find a way to openly weed the paranoia out and find a real solution that treats people as real people, with real blood flowing through real veins just like you and me! I believe in the ability for us to do this and believe compassion will prevail. But we can’t do it if we are not all engaged in the process! This is an election season. It’s time we take our government back as “the people” and begin to seek out candidates who are willing and able to seek solutions rather than bolster their own or their party’s prestige and power.

Get out there folks. Let your voices be heard. Do not let the fear mongers intimidate you. And may the God of all people guide us in our collective discernment.

2 thoughts on “Why Sanctuary? #sanctuary2014 #not1more #LetLuisStay”

  1. Superbly explained, thoughtfully shared, with excellent background and reasoning. Eric, you have been so eloquent throughout this situation. Your grit, your even-tempered way of handling this have to be so disarming to the critics. We are so proud of your leadership, exemplary way of handling this and accomplishing the other many responsibilities you have as a pastor and a person. Luis came to a place where he could be safe and University Presbyterian Church can be a light in a troubled immigration system.

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