ELCA Churchwide Assembly Declares ELCA Sanctuary Church

​In a key action, the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted to approve a memorial that declares the ELCA a sanctuary church. The ELCA is the first North American denomination to declare itself a sanctuary church body. As a sanctuary church the ELCA is committed to serving and supporting migrant children and families in communities across the country.

The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA, joined more than 700 assembly members and others in a march and prayer vigil to the Milwaukee Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office. The march addressed concerns about the human rights of migrant children and families entering the U.S. along the southern border. Through the ELCA’s initiative, Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities (AMMPARO), this church is committed to work toward just and humane policies affecting migrants in and outside the U.S. Learn more about AMMPARO.

What does becoming a sanctuary denomination mean for the ELCA?

In its simplest form, becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith.  The ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the highest legislative authority of the ELCA, declared that when we preach on Sunday that Jesus told us to welcome, we will use our hands and voices on Monday to make sure it happens.

Being a sanctuary denomination does not call for any person, congregation or synod to engage in any illegal actions.

We have a broken system regarding immigration, refugees and asylum-seekers. To declare ourselves a sanctuary church body is to say that we seek to provide concrete resources to assist the most vulnerable who are feeling the sharp edges of this broken system.

Being a sanctuary denomination is about loving our neighbors.  While we may have different ideas about how to fix this broken system and may have different ways of loving our neighbors, our call to love our neighbor is central to our faith.

Being a sanctuary denomination will look different in different contexts.  It may mean providing space for people to live; providing financial and legal support to those who are working through the immigration system; or supporting other congregations and service providers.  We cannot mandate or direct our congregations and ministries to respond in specific ways.  Each must work out what this means for them in their context.

While we don’t yet know the full scope of the work that this declaration will open for the church, we do know that our faith communities are already doing sanctuary work. Sanctuary for a congregation may mean hosting English as a second Language (ESL) classes; marching as people of faith against the detention of children and families; providing housing for a community member facing deportation; or, in some of our congregations, having thoughtful conversations about what our faith says about immigration.  All of these are a step closer to sanctuary in our faith communities and sanctuary in our world for people who must leave their homes.

Except for our members whose ancestors were here before European settlement or others who were forced to come to the U.S. against their will, the ELCA is an immigrant church. Our decades-long work with immigrants and refugees is how we practice our faith in the world.  Lutherans started Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S.

At our last churchwide assembly, we also committed to walking alongside Central American children and families fleeing their communities by passing the AMMPARO strategy (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities).

Through the AMMPARO strategy, we are also working through our global partners in Central America to alleviate the conditions that cause people to migrate.  We support organizations and faith communities that work with deported migrants in Central America and advocate for the humane treatment of immigrants in Mexico.  In the U.S., we have a network of 151 welcoming and sanctuary congregations that are committed to working on migration issues and a welcome for immigrant communities.  The church also has five sanctuary synods (our regional structures), all of which do work with immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers.

In baptism, we are brought into a covenantal relationship with Jesus Christ that commits us to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.  Following the example of Martin Luther, we believe that advocacy is a crucial expression of baptismal identity. As a church, we have advocated for stopping the detention of children and families for decades.  We have spoken out against family separation, sought a pathway to citizenship for community members who have lived in the U.S. for many years, and have taken steps to address the root causes of migration in a way that honors the humanity in people who must flee.

Being a sanctuary denomination means that we, as church together, want to be public and vocal about this work.  At the same time, we will have conversations about what sanctuary means with many of our members and discern future action and direction. Welcoming people is not a political issue for us, it is a matter of faith.

Several ELCA Bishops have shared letters regarding this churchwide assembly action.  Read ELCA Presiding Bishop Eaton’s letter. Pennsylvania Synod bishops’ letters may be found here:  Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod Bishop Samuel Zeiser’s letter;  Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod Bishop Kurt Kusserow’s letter; Lower Susquehanna Synod Bishop James Dunlop’s letter; and Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Bishop Patricia Davenport’s letter.


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