Sanctuary moves outside church walls

Executive orders inspire congregations to do more to welcome immigrants

Feb 6, 2017 by and

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The teach-in was supposed to happen at a local library. But when President Trump entered office with executive actions that heightened fears among the immigrant community, a larger venue was needed.

Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church shoehorned nearly 400 people into its sanctuary Jan. 31 as the expansion site for a teaching session on immigrant sanctuary by the Central Ohio Worker Center.

Michael Prescott and Sarah Aeschliman, who attend West End Mennonite Fellowship in Lancaster, Pa., join thousands of people demonstrating in support of refugees Jan. 31 at Penn Square in Lancaster. — Dale D. Gehman for MWR

Michael Prescott and Sarah Aeschliman, who attend West End Mennonite Fellowship in Lancaster, Pa., join thousands of people demonstrating in support of refugees Jan. 31 at Penn Square in Lancaster. — Dale D. Gehman for MWR

It was just one way Mennonite churches have responded to Trump’s travel bans and statements, which critics view as dehumanizing and provocative.

In addition to an executive order — blocked by a federal judge Feb. 3 — that suspended entry into the U.S. by refugees and others from seven predominantly Muslim nations, Trump issued an order to withhold federal funding from “sanctuary cities” that limit municipal agencies and law enforcement from assisting in the enforcement of federal immigration laws.

“The congregation was involved in the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, so we have some history with it,” said Pastor Joel Miller. “There’s an Iraqi refugee family we have adopted through World Relief, so there’s a group of people in the congregation who relate with them regularly.”

Others at Columbus Mennonite work to build relationships with the city’s Somali population, the second-largest in the U.S.

Though the congregation is not an official sanctuary site that would be prepared to house families and individuals in danger of deportation, Miller said he is part of a group of pastors discussing what such a commitment could mean. And he isn’t alone.

Anton Flores-Maisonet is a founding member of the Alterna Community in LaGrange, Ga., a bilingual Anabaptist group devoted to hospitality and justice.

Part of Alterna’s mission is to provide transitional housing for immigrants, such as single parents with U.S.-born children, but the community hasn’t been a sanctuary in the traditional definition of housing those under threat of deportation. Still, Flores said he could envision it becoming an opportunity for such a witness.

“Our relationships with folks are deep enough that if our faith required that of us, we would definitely do it,” Flores said.

As he works on a Herald Press project focusing on Exodus, he sees a distinct connection to the midwives Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus 1.

The women defied an order from Pharaoh to kill all boys born to Hebrew women, and God rewarded their obedience.

“The church is positioned in the rhetoric of fear and shrewd politics,” Flores said. “It is our opportunity to be midwives of justice.

“It’s a watershed opportunity for the church to take seriously the call to hospitality, doing whatever we can to keep families intact, seeing families as sacred.”

There are theological connections to midwives thousands of years ago, and political connections to just one year ago. Flores said Trump’s swift actions and bans have much in common with former President Obama’s millions of deportations.

“That’s where the church has to reflect and ask how Martin Luther King Jr. says, ‘How are we being the conscience of the state?’ ” he said. “. . . I think it’s important not to gloss over the fact that this is not something just since January 20.”

A new kind of sanctuary

Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson, Ariz., has been part of the sanctuary movement for a little more than a year but was also involved in welcoming refugees in the 1980s.

“Obama had a pretty strong deportation system and policy, and we were not happy with that,” said co-pastor Tina Schlabach.

She, fellow co-pastor Carol Rose and other clergy in Tucson began meeting before the November election to stand with vulnerable people near the border with Mexico. The interfaith group held a press conference Jan. 18 declaring its commitment to “radical welcome to all people.”

Shalom was already working with refugees and immigrants in a variety of ways. Members support people in court hearings and welcome them on their release. The church sponsors a visitation group at a nearby for-profit detention center. Schlabach is a regular visitor at the facility, which houses women for months and even years.

“There’s a steady stream of women and children crossing from Central America, and we have three churches in Tucson opening their doors to them, and we have church members helping with that,” Schlabach said.

As that continues, she sees the sanctuary movement moving from openly housing people.

“It’s going from that to being more creative with other options to support people under threat of deportation,” she said.

Though Trump promised repercussions for cities that decline to pursue and detain people in the U.S. illegally, Schlabach said she isn’t worried about risk or punishment.

“We are in a strong position to stand with vulnerable people,” she said. “Even if there would be so-called threats from the government, our community would be very supportive and unify together to figure things out. We’re not the vulnerable ones.”

USMB: evangelistic view
Mennonite World Review staff

U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches national director Don Morris urged responding to the hold on immigration of refugees in the way of Jesus in a Feb. 1 statement.

He said prohibiting those who are displaced from entering the U.S. as an offer of refuge goes against Christ’s teachings and hoped the action would result in wide acceptance of refugees in the near future.

He said the government has a responsibility to ensure its citizens’ safety.

“The amount of vitriol leveled at our new president and government by many who are followers of Jesus is also not the way of Jesus,” he said. “. . . That said, my personal view is that as we welcome and care for refugees, God’s protection will be on our side.”

He expressed hope that the ban will give way to “a monumental movement to welcome many refugees” and that deportations not divide families.

“If we look at immigration from an evangelistic perspective, welcoming those who need a place to belong can result in not only caring for their physical needs but also providing opportunities to share the good news of Jesus,” he said. “That said, many who are currently without a home are Christians. It should be a blessing to allow them to become a part of our nation.”

Colleges: clash of values
Mennonite World Review staff

Mennonite colleges and universities issued statements about the executive order banning entry to the U.S. for people from seven countries and halting the visa waiver program.

Eastern Mennonite University President Susan Schultz Huxman and provost Fred Kniss released a statement Jan. 30 noting the order collides with EMU’s mission “to prepare students to serve and lead in a global context.”

“This decision and its consequences impact our international students, their families and other members of our campus community, including many alumni and our global partners working with the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding,” they said.

Staff have reached out to each international student with a message of advocacy and support. Huxman and Kniss expressed concern to local and state elected officials.

Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., issued a statement Feb. 2 from interim president John Sheriff and the administrative cabinet said that Trump’s order “directly conflicts with Bethel’s vision and values.”

Administrators pledged “to do everything within our legal and moral authority to protect our students and employees — regardless of immigration status, religious or ethnic background or sexual orientation.”

Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

About Me