What is “Sanctuary”

By: Taylor Bell

5 minute read

Why did two of your ministers sign the Interfaith Proclamation of Sanctuary? And how did we end up on the news? We owe you an explanation. We also want you to be an informed congregation for this difficult conversation on immigration and justice. Taylor and Valerie have written two entries to shed light on the Sanctuary Movement and its relevance for Christians today. The first entry, published today, answers the questions “What is ‘Sanctuary?’” and “What does the Bible say about the immigrant?” The second entry, to be published Friday, invites us to see ourselves in the storylines of people and parishes responding when their neighbors needed aid. As a Baptist church it is our responsibility to discern together how we will respond to the immigrant in our own community. These entries are just the beginning of what we hope is a fruitful dialogue. Lean in as we communally discern the Spirit’s leading. As Christian pastors, we know God is calling us to respond. So let us discern together what this response may look like at BCOC.


The Sanctuary Movement began on March 24th, 1982 at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ. This church declared they were a “Sanctuary” for Central American refugees seeking asylum from violent political oppression but were denied asylum status by the U.S. Government. Declaring “Sanctuary” meant this church would house and protect asylum seekers regardless if they entered the U.S. legally or not. By 1985, the Sanctuary Movement was in full swing, becoming a nationwide multi-faith network. Drawing parallels from the Underground Railroad, this network worked to move asylum seekers from one house of worship to another until they could reach Canada where their refugee status would be recognized. This movement lasted until 1996.

The church’s declaration in 1982 was understood as a Christian moral response to the growing human rights crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. For them, their Christian faith demanded they care and seek justice for the immigrant, regardless of the nation’s laws. The Old Testament is rich with divine mandates to care for the immigrant. Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV) states: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” In the New Testament we here echoes. In Luke, the Parable of the Good Samaritan directly applies, as the question “Who is my neighbor” is answered as anyone who is in need of help regardless of legal code or social custom. For these Christians, declaring “Sanctuary” was a faithful Christian response to the cries and needs of their immigrant neighbors.

The Sanctuary Movement was also premised on the legal tradition of “Seeking asylum,” or the “Right to Asylum.” This right states that “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,” as confirmed by the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967). Being granted “asylum status” depends on the country’s dictates that one is seeking asylum in. Our legal affirmation of asylum seekers is rooted in a deep historical tradition. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Hebrews all recognized the “right of asylum” to some extent. For Christians, in 511 CE, the Council of Orleans declared that asylum could be granted to anyone who took refuge in a church. This tradition continued through European Common Law and into the present-day.

It is this historical, legal, and Christian tradition that inspires and roots the present-day Sanctuary movement. We can note historical parallels to 1982, where today refugees from Central America journey to America to seek asylum from violence and oppression. We also observe the U.S. government’s refusal to grant these people “asylum status,” instead detaining and rounding them up for extradition. It appears our government’s goal is to make the U.S. as inhospitable to immigrants and refugees as possible–a direct contradiction to the Christian gospel. In reflecting on the Sanctuary Movement and its struggle with the U.S. government for compassion and justice, I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail where he writes:

“There are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’ … A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law … Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality … We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

The Christian tradition of King and the Civil Rights Movement reminds us that while government is necessary, it is not always good and just. When this happens, Christians have a moral imperative to respond not by attacking the government, but by sharing compassion, hospitality, and solidarity with those people who are ostracized and oppressed. We are convicted as clergy of the Christian Gospel that it is our moral responsibility to stand in solidarity with the Sanctuary Movement and the refugees it struggles for. As Christians, hospitality for the immigrant, no matter documented or undocumented, is part of what it means to be Christian.

5 thoughts on “What is “Sanctuary”

  1. Thank you for words and sharing God’s word, may we as Christians show this country what it truly means to “Love thy neighbor”

  2. Thank you for sharing the historical context of the Sanctuary Movement and for the reminder that legal is not necessarily just nor loving.

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