Sanctuary is a Stronghold of the Movement

By Rev. Alison Harrington

“paradise is a world where everything
is a sanctuary & nothing is a gun.”
~ from “summer, somewhere” by Danez Smith

In the past couple of years, a growing group of communities of faith have stood up to stand in solidarity with immigrants facing deportation through the work of sanctuary.

In the wake of last week’s killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Delrawn Small at the hands of police, it is time the principle of sanctuary expanded beyond church walls to every street corner in America — because when police continue to kill Black people, when a gunman opens fire in the midst of a peaceful protest, when police are killed in Baton Rouge, when a night of dancing in Orlando ends with 49 dead — as people of faith, we must do more and we must do it now.

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For those in the growing Sanctuary Movement, sanctuary is something we talk about all the time. For us, sanctuary has been a tactic to stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from deporting a community member.

Calling upon the ancient traditions of our faith where houses of worship were a refuge for the fugitive, the runaway slave, the conscientious objector, and the Central American refugee fleeing the civil wars of the 1980s, this tactic has been picked up again as deportation rates have soared in the past 8 years. To offer sanctuary to someone is to invite them to live within the walls of a house of worship — a space where law enforcement will not trespass — and to mount a community-wide campaign to have their deportation order stopped.

But sanctuary is more than a specific tactic used to fight a deportation order. It is a grounding principle that seeks to maintain safe places where protection is found from persecution. And the geography of sanctuary, as a principle, reaches beyond the walls of a house of worship; true sanctuary has no borders and is not bound to a specific organizing group. Instead, the need to create Sanctuary space is essential for all social movements, including LGBTQ rights, especially in the wake of the Pulse shooting.

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In its aftermath, filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo wrote:

“Traditionally, ‘sanctuary’ was a religious word, meaning a sacred space in a church where fugitives from danger would be protected from persecution. A sanctuary, above all, offered refuge, comfort, a place to rest one’s head for a night. Violence was totally prohibited. But for many queer people, ‘sanctuary’ in the religious sense has never existed. Yes, some churches have been the exception—but over and over again throughout history, queer people have fled their churches and sought sanctuary elsewhere. For many, clubs like Pulse have provided that sanctuary. And on Sunday, a possibly closeted homophobe violated this sacred—yes, sacred—space.”

Whether sanctuary is found in a church or in a gay club, it is space that must be protected, it is a principle that must be defended.

And yet, over and over again, sacred space has been violated; a bible study in Charleston, a kindergarten class in Newtown, a gay club in Orlando, a gathering of peaceful demonstrators in Dallas, a quiet walk home in Sanford, Florida. All of these spaces were sanctuary spaces — a place of refuge — and all of these spaces were profaned by horrific acts of violence rooted in the systems of violence and oppression that plague our nation: white supremacy and heterosexism being just two.

In the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico, we have witnessed the way in which the sanctuary of home has been violated by the jackboots of ICE officials – charged with “keeping the homeland safe” – with a complete lack of accountability or oversight within their agency. Since 2010, Border Patrol has been responsible for at least 46 killings — and in only one of those murders has an agent been indicted. In 2o12, standing on the U.S. side of the border, Border Patrol agent Lonnie Ray Swartz shot 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in the back and in the head 10 times as he walked down a street in Nogales, Mexico. Only because of the steadfast pressure of Jose Antonio’s family and the southern Arizona community were charges brought the agent.

We have been working for accountability and oversight while we have been pushing back against the militarization of our border. In the same way, we need to push back against the militarization of all police forces and call for more accountability and oversight of local police as we push for transformational changes in policing.

As Black lives continue to be assaulted we need more and more sanctuary spaces. Places where life is affirmed against the violent forces of death; where love is celebrated against ideologies of hate; places where we can retreat when the world has bruised and battered our spirits.

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In her acceptance speech for the Leadership on Immigration Reform Award at Creating Change! Conference, Marisa Franco, co-founder of Mijente and campaign director for the #Not1More campaign, beautifully and prophetically expanded conceptions of sanctuary to include movement spaces:

“Movements in this country has come alive because so many people simply can’t wait anymore. And when we seek to enter movement, and we converge, these spaces, they are sacred, because they are a form of sanctuary. Sanctuary is a spiritual stance.It recognizes that oppression is trying to fill our lives with fear and blood and daily numbing horror, and sanctuary says: not in here. Not in my home. Not in my bed. Not in my movement.

Sanctuary makes a ring of fire around our people. Sanctuary grants us a taste of reprieve and protection so we can gather strength to go out there again and fight.”

We do well to heed the prophetic voice and call of Marisa Franco — Sanctuary is about establishing strategic strongholds where spaces are protected as sacred and where the people can gather to heal and to build. Sanctuary is a stronghold of love and resistance, and whether you find that sanctuary in a church, in a club or in the embrace of a lover — from that place of sanctuary we will advance, establishing more and more places of sanctuary until, as poet Danez Smith writes, “paradise is a world where everything is a sanctuary & nothing is a gun.”

There are three ways in which we can expand notions of sanctuary to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and with all movements for civil rights.

First, create sanctuary space within your congregation for White people to engage in talking about White Supremacy. We are in a unique historical moment where there is an abundance of materials to aid in these conversations. If White people want to be in solidarity with Black folks, we need to first do our own work unpacking that heavy knapsack of white privilege while we understand the historical foundations of white supremacy and its current iteration. But we can’t get stuck in these conversations — these conversations must propel us into action as we stand in solidarity with Black, Queer, Muslim, Sikh, Latinx, immigrant, and Indigenous folks.

Second, we must respect the sanctuary spaces of marginalized and underrepresented people. All of those directly impacted by systems of violence and oppression must have their own space to heal and find wholeness within circles of love and support where their life and experience is centered and shared.

Third, as churches in Baltimore did in 2015, we need to offer up the literal spaces of our churches for gatherings, forums, office space, and organizing work. Much of the crucial organizing work that is being done happens on a shoestring budget, and whenever we find ways to leverage the resources we have to support that work, we need to do it. But opening our spaces to community groups to meet and strategize does not mean we are invited into that space. Unlock the doors, turn on the AC, and move out of the way. There is, of course, times in which we may be invited into “the room where it happens” (to quote Hamilton), but we must wait for those invitations and have upfront conversations with folks about expectations.

In short, we need sanctuary spaces everywhere. And as the Sanctuary Movement, we must see the intersectionality of oppression that crosses race, gender, sexual orientation and class. We must call upon our congregations to go beyond talk of loving our neighbor to actual love, so that we can live our faith by opening our doors and hitting the streets to create sanctuary alongside Black Lives Matter, undocumented people, the LGBTQ community, and the Muslim and Sikh communities to stop the violence and seek justice in all that we do.

In every church basement, union hall, and living room we must use every inch of the space we can claim as sacred, working to expand sanctuary until it includes cars with broken tail lights and every street corner in every neighborhood. In these strongholds of love and resistance, we stand alongside those who fight, affirming with each and every breath that Black lives matter.

Rev. Alison Harrington is the pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, where the Sanctuary Movement originated in the 1980s and rebirthed in 2014. Which Voices leave you wanting to hear more? Email us ideas for interviews at [email protected].

Photo courtesy of Al Día News.

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