Sanctuary: A Why to and a How to

The Moral and Political Costs and Benefits

 of Sanctuary as a Strategy



(Published on website, December 2016)

During very hard times, people often shelter – provide sanctuary for - each other.

·      I think of the amazing work of Raoul Wallenberg, during the 1940s.  He set up 31 safe houses to shelter Jews from the Nazis in and around Budapest.

·      Or the brave family in Amsterdam who hid Anne Frank during World War II.

·      I think of Jewish and German immigrants in old New York City, where I now live and work.  They slept in three shifts.  “Hurry up and eat, honey, we need the tablecloth for a sheet,” is a famous Yiddish expression.  It would be hard to say who was providing sanctuary for whom – but surely they were mutually sheltering each other in a cost- effective way.

·      Or more recently, in the 1970’s and 80’s in this country, when political refugees poured across the border from Nicaragua and Guatemala during the U.S.-supported wars there, and churches and synagogues hid some of them to protect them from deportation, in the first so-named US “Sanctuary Movement.”

·      Less dramatic situations develop now in many of our families, where a 26-year-old adult-child can’t find work and comes home to live in the basement.  We take each other in, especially if we have the space and others don’t.

“Sanctuary” in the 21st century has often been defined as larger than providing housing.  In the New York City New Sanctuary Coalition, for the last ten years of our existence, we have defined “sanctuary” as moral, spiritual, psychological, financial, legal – and sometimes physical – support for people who are about to be detained or deported.  Why the broad definition?  Because often the first five adjectives protect more people than the last one.  Physical Sanctuary could only serve as mostly a publicity attempt to raise the larger issues – but actually benefitting only one person.  There are simply too many immigrants to pick out one or two for help.

The NYC New Sanctuary Coalition’s Accompaniment Project has trained hundreds of volunteers to accompany hundreds of people facing deportation  to their required periodic “check-ins” with the local ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office.  ICE doesn’t like to have citizens paying attention to what they are doing.  Showing ICE that immigrants have citizens watching and supporting them helps ICE to realize that these people are not the ones that they need to deport right now.  Accompaniment is as good a supportive strategy as physical sanctuary, helps more immigrants, and can be a gateway to providing physical sanctuary if it becomes necessary.

We also broadened the definition of sanctuary as a strategy because we in the faith community thought it more spiritual and moral and theological in its core, than simply the important human, constitutional, and civil rights cores espoused by our marvelous secular partners in immigration protection. 

When Congress failed so royally to pass immigration reform of laws we perceived to be unjust, for all eight years of the last administration, we found ourselves playing much more defense than offense.  We surely tried to change the unjust laws and we surely failed. 

A most egregious part of the unfair laws against immigrants is one that goes against the heart of multiple religious points of view.  Under current immigration law, if any non-citizens have a prior felony conviction - even if they have served their time, lived a law-abiding life ever since, married a US citizen or had US citizen children – they must be immediately deported, removed from the country, exiled from their American families!  That law violates the heart of the principle of fairness and the principle of forgiveness.  Religious people may be able to look the other way at some kinds of assaults on our wisdom.  We cannot abandon the notions of repentance and forgiveness.  They cut to the core. If we cannot believe in forgiveness, what can we believe?  If we cannot show that God is gracious, what can we show?

Since the election, there has been a profound renewal of interest in the strategy of sanctuary.  The President-elect joins the Mayor of our great city in using the word loosely and often.  Sanctuary cities are very important; they exemplify the right to refuse certain legal interventions against their residents.

Here I tell you why religious sanctuary is a good strategy, if not a great strategy, and also how to do it, if you are so inclined.

Physical Sanctuary is NOT a great strategy because there aren’t enough congregations who are capable of doing it, compared to the number of immigrants who need and want it. It IS a good, not great strategy, because it shows we are serious about the need for real change in immigration law.  And under the new administration, it might pose some possible legal risk to a congregation that offers it.


The greatest moral difficulty in providing Physical Sanctuary is the way it may sometimes require breaking the law, when it involves a level of stealth and quiet, even secrecy. 

In ordinary forms of civil disobedience, we like to be open and clear about why we would break a law.  We break one law on behalf of a higher law. 

Current immigration law provides that

“any person who….knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an alien has…remained in the United States in violation of law, conceals, harbors, or shields from detection, or attempts to [do so], is…in violation of law”

and may be punished by a fine and up to five years in prison.

         8 USC 1181 section 1234(a)(1), (A)(iii) & (B)(ii).

There is case law in some federal courts that merely housing an immigrant - without concealing or shielding them from detection by ICE - does not constitute the kind of “harboring” that violates this law.  This provision has not been tested in the Supreme Court and nobody knows how other courts might interpret it if a case were to be brought today.  So far, the government has not tried to sue or otherwise harass any congregation for providing Physical Sanctuary, but whether that policy will continue under a new administration is not known.

The New Sanctuary Movement that began in 2007, primarily to try to bring about reform of the immigration laws, relied on that permissive  interpretation of “harboring” when it took a few immigrants into Physical Sanctuary[GG1]  in cities around the US.  In those cases, and in cases where possible today, the congregations make sure that the local ICE offices know exactly where that immigrant is – no concealing or hiding - but instead, make an attempt to get the widest possible publicity to inform the public about the terrible inequities in the current immigration laws that need immediate reform.

At the moment, we know of 11 congregations in New York City who are providing some kind of physical sanctuary.  There are surely more, as many congregations made up primarily of immigrants have long quietly providedsanctuary, broadly conceived and physically conceived, on a regular basis. You will not hear of this sacrificial work for obvious reasons: they are hiding and sheltering and protecting people who, if found, will be deported. 

A recent article in the US edition of the British-based newspaper The Guardian reports that up to 400 churches and synagogues are now willing to offer physical sanctuary:

Five Reasons to Do Sanctuary

1.    Every religion advises protection of the stranger.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus is clear (Matthew 25: 34–36) when he says,


Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ 


The scriptures also tell us in Hebrews 13:2:

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.


The First Testament also reminds us that we once were strangers in a strange land and therefore must welcome the stranger as ourselves[GG2] , as an expression of covenant faithfulness (Leviticus 19:33-34).


2.    Many of us call ourselves Beatitudes Christians or people who sense great wisdom in the Beatitudes, even if we don’t understand the rest of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  We see the work of Jesus in attending those on the edge, in the margins, those in trouble.  We find our life and our way in aiding them in their life and their way. 


Further, in the New Sanctuary Movement, we find a profound mutuality of stranger and guest.  We lose the sense of a citizen and alien invader, or living in a fort and instead live in a port , just because we sense our humanity in the humanities of each other. 


In human rights terms, we often mention the great economic benefit of hard-working immigrants.  For those in the New Sanctuary Movement, we see also the great spiritual benefit of human connection.  We see ourselves enriched by touching and connecting with each other.


3.    If Biblical and spiritual basis and benefit are not enough for you, then consider the theological possibility of sin or missing the mark of our humanity.  To look the other way as millions of people are threatened is hardly a good thing.  It constitutes a great definition of privilege – why do you look away? because you can – and such privilege is sin.  For those of us who are golden rule Christians, at a minimum we know we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and to love God above all.  No one is a stranger or a foreigner to God.  If we think so, our God is too small.  This more theological principle may be the right way to explain why we would offer sanctuary to another.


4.    You may not need spiritual or theological reasons to protect another.  You may want to protect your babysitter, your mother’s caretaker, your father’s physical therapist, your restaurant’s dishwasher, or your local strawberry picker.  You may know someone who needs help – and I’ll bet you know more than one.


5.    Finally, you may be a patriotic American, one who loves the land and its Constitution and its great histories so much that you want the chance to be faithful to it.  The laws now harming immigrants are hardly our best laws.  They rest on the flimsiest of self-protections of those already here against those just coming.  Many of us are descendants of people who entered freely, before immigration laws existed. Many of us love the stories of how close our houses are to an Underground Railroad site.  Patriotism, oddly, is one of the strongest reasons to disobey laws that need to be changed and will be changed when we come to our senses.  I choose a sanctuary strategy out of patriotism and my belief in Jesus.


I love my country and I love the gospel even more.  I couldn’t possibly allow the State to tell me or my people how to follow Jesus, and thus feel a need to test the “law” about the government intruding into religious spaces.




1.    Pay more attention to the whys than to the hows.  One of the most vexing matters so far in this early stage of sanctuary’s second stage in this new century is here:  we say we don’t know how.  Maybe our church building doesn’t have a shower.  Or we are worried no one will help out.  Or we are afraid of more work when we are already overworked.  These are important matters.  They also matter much less than the stakes in the why.  We make the road by walking.  Resources are available to walk you through the planning; e.g., this tool-kit:

[insert link[GG3] ]

        /justice page[GG4] 


2.    Get Congregational support.  Even if there is a division in the congregation about whether and why to do sanctuary (at any level, accompaniment or physical or all ways) the conversation is important.  Take it one step at a time.  You can come closer together.  Your congregation will define its next chapter by whether or not it makes its way through in this historic and kairotic moment.  Fight well.  Fight beautifully.  Fight lovingly.  Do what you can to help those who are in a lot more trouble than the emotional anguish of a congregational fight.


3.    If possible, get an official statement of why you are doing what you do, to use when you get questions – from congregants, from the hierarchy, from the media…as you surely will.


At my church, Judson Memorial in New York City, our Board, after extensive discussion, passed a resolution, which you can find at


4.    Work on multiple levels.  DO NOT do anything without first consulting with the immigrants who are impacted by your actions – they are your essential partners, in handling the planning as well as the doing, the difficulties as well as the successes.  Once you have found the person or people who will be with you, work with them to decide what to do.  You are not a host and they a guest; you are partners.  Beware paternalizing. 


5.    Pray often and make your objective as humble as possible.  Think, “we are doing this little thing,” along with many others who are doing a little thing.  Spend as much time getting your denomination to help you as you do internalizing how to do it.  Spend as much time getting others to do sanctuary strategies as you do on doing them yourself.  Don’t count on publicity so much as word of mouth.  The best thing about sanctuary as a strategy is that it is genuine and down to earth instead of “messaged” and “manipulated” and “organizationally opportunistic.” Beware the instrumental. Indeed you will find partners and even “church growth,” but those are not the reasons you are providing sanctuary.


6.    Finally, be prepared for lots of surprises and the need for a strong, internal team of a half dozen or so who will work closely with those in sanctuary, day by day, month by month, possibly even year by year.  Think of sanctuary as bringing your beloved adult child into the spare room and not knowing what is going to happen next.