a pastoral reflection as the ELCA becomes a sanctuary denomination
Am I right to be afraid?
“Am I right to feel afraid?” I ask myself this question sometimes. Often the automatic physiological fear-responses of my body—adrenaline, heightened senses, sweat, increased heart rate—are out of sync with the real danger. Overreacting is the greater danger. So I calm myself, as gently as I’m able.
Other times, I ask myself, “Am I right to feel angry?”
These questions refocus me on reality and morality. What are the facts? Do I have a moral claim to my fear or anger? The cross warns: humans do great evil when we bless our fear and anger and do violence in the name of peace or the law or God almighty. We may “save” our lives or even “gain” the whole world but we lose our very souls. Thank God, Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
Attending to fear and anger can, in all truth, help us sort our soul from our idolatries. But that takes care, prayer, and a healthy suspicion of what our feelings seem to tell us. Practically speaking, we need conversation partners who give us grace without stroking our egos. What a blessing these people are! Blessed are we when we heed them!
Watch: The ELCA supports migrant minors in Central America and the U.S.
Being part of a sanctuary denomination
After worship Sunday, August 25, 15 St. Paul people gathered to be blessed conversation partners. Grounded in Philippians 2:1-11, we gave and received what was in our hearts and guts about the ELCA’s declaration that it’s a “sanctuary church body.”
Most, if not all, shared the same question: “What does this mean? What do we mean by ‘sanctuary’?”
This core question led us to others. If sanctuary is about shelter and sharing, how effective are St. Paul’s and other local ministries with hungry and homeless people? How do other organizations and movements define ‘sanctuary’? What is the ELCA (including congregations, synods, and related service organizations) already doing to serve migrants and immigrants? What can we learn from the Lutheran World Federation? Who are our local recent-immigrant neighbors? What are their gifts and needs? What are local schools, the Sisters of St. Francis, or other neighbors doing? Tolerating the ambiguity of all these questions—and all the emotions surrounding them—wasn’t easy for everyone, myself foremost. But it’s what we committed to do. We trusted each other. We trusted God. In the end, we were grateful, even if we still are feeling our way in the dark.
Ten years ago, there was another “Churchwide Assembly,” like the one last month when Lutherans debated, voted, and passed the sanctuary church declaration. Back in 2009, the ELCA changed its policies and allowed for the ordination of married gay clergy.
I celebrated that 2009 decision. Before it, I advocated for a similar outcome and even participated in civil disobedience at the 2005 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. I did so out of love and loyalty to gay brothers and sisters in Christ who both survived and died by suicide, who lived in painful “closets” or on the street after parents threw them out, whose calls to ministry were denied and denigrated.
But as an intern-pastor in Bradenton, Florida, I was afraid to name this love and loyalty in the bible studies I myself led, the very studies published to help the church discern before the 2005 Churchwide Assembly. I now regret this silence. I failed to trust the people I served. I was afraid to be known. At St. Paul, as we discuss the sanctuary decision and always, I want to create shelter and protection that invites all of us out of hiding and into loving community with God. Voicing fully our love and loyalties, we also invite each other to deeper love and wider loyalty.
Read: Rev. Clint Schneckloth is an Eldridge, Iowa native and an ELCA pastor in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Consider his reflection.
What sanctuary means to me
I celebrate the ELCA’s sanctuary decision. I’m convinced sanctuary means offering shelter, protection, and dignity to migrants and refugees. Sanctuary is what I found in the Lutheran church. Haven't you?
Nothing better symbolizes resistance to the flow of God’s love than a wall. Our nation is stuck in either-or, all-or-nothing thinking, ignoring scripture’s calls for hospitality, feeding our fears and angers, while suffering people suffer more and die and a broken system stays broken.
Meanwhile, the ELCA works in Central American countries with young people deported from the U.S., providing psychological care, job training, and seed money. Roughly 90% remain in their home countries and don’t try to return to the U.S. May this kind of loving imagination take hold among all U.S. Christians and our civic leaders.
Becoming a sanctuary denomination is an invitation (never a demand) to refocus on reality and morality and to save our souls by giving away our lives. Thanks be to God. Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
Watch: The ELCA serves returned migrants in their home countries.