Thursday, March 16, 2017

Refugees, Sanctuary, & the Church in 2017


This is a resource post, which means I promise fill it with what I hope are useful links for you. It also means that the post will be even better if you share additional resources in the comments below! 

My first sustained attention to the concept of "sanctuary" probably came with the release of the 1996 Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was fifteen years old. I had been raised, though, in an Anglo-Catholic tradition that emphasized the absoluteness of the confessional's confidentiality, which seemed to me to be consistent with the concept. Still, even multiple film viewings didn't mask the incompleteness of my education.

I start with Quasimodo because, with the return of the sanctuary movement in 2017, my recent experience in conversation with local leaders is that many of us carry a heart for the work while simultaneously carrying holes in our knowledge of the movement and so also what we're getting ourselves into. There's good news here. Presbyterian minister John Fife didn't know what he was doing, either, when he started the sanctuary movement in the early 1980s. As it turns out, sanctuary means lots of things. As it turns out, caring and showing up to the conversation is a good enough place to start.

But history helps. Which is why I can't commend enough two short podcast episodes from 99% Invisible:
99% Invisible is a podcast "about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world." The show has been criticized by some for departing from its stated mission to produce these two episodes, which is a fascinating and, I contend, misguided critique. For surely the political involvement of the United States in the governing of other countries constitutes "unnoticed architecture and design" that shapes our world. Which is why the history helps.

History is also what John Fife and his peers turned to when they began the sanctuary movement. They turned to the Underground Railroad movement of the early and mid 19th century in which Christians (and especially Quakers) were also instrumental as a template for their work. Just as the podcasts above provide a helpful history when considering the sanctuary efforts of 2017, history helps as Christians continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery. An excruciating documentary I can't recommend highly enough in this regard is 13th, which documents the constitutional transition from slavery to the systemic incarceration of African-Americans in the United States. 


So, in 2016, former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman said in an interview with Harper's writer Dan Baum
We knew we could make it illegal to be either against the way or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course we did.
The sanctuary movement was similarly subjected to the interest of the government, which enlisted informants to pose as sanctuary volunteers who recorded meetings and even worship services as evidence later used to indict leaders of the movement. In the trials that followed, prosecutors successfully filed court motions that disallowed the defense from presenting arguments about, among other things, the enforcement of immigration law and religious freedom. Maybe read that sentence again. Most fundamentally, it was refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, countries whose dictators were propped up by the U.S. government as part of Cold War posturing, who were being denied access to this country under existing asylum laws (because to do would require formal acknowledgement of evils enacted by the governments the U.S. was propping up). It is impossible to separate questions of justice from questions of design.

_____


When I was called to be the chaplain at the St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center in 2012, I knew I was stepping into a rich history of pronounced social awareness and activism. My predecessors transformed the Episcopal Center into a medical clinic for protesters during the Vietnam War resistance, for which the University of Wisconsin-Madison was something of an epicenter.

Charley Taylor, speaking at SFH's 100th anniversary event in October, 2015. 
For more on Madison and the Vietnam War, check out 
the stellar documentary The War at Home.

In the 1980s, too, St. Francis House provided sanctuary to refugees of Guatemala and El Salvador, with families sharing rooms and spaces traditional reserved for students. When people talk about the sanctuary movement today, it is usually this historical moment to which they refer, when the Christian community openly challenged the federal government's enforcement of asylum laws. 

Like many churches, St. Francis House has changed since 1980. Not in its commitment to justice or the service of Christ in all persons, but as an institution, as a building, even. As the university landscape is always changing and evolving, so too with us. The rooms refugee families inhabited in the 1980s were torn down some years ago to make room for the adjacent student apartment building. It was a brilliant and visionary move to maintain an Anglican/Episcopal presence at the University of Wisconsin, and the change of space will not prevent St. Francis House from carrying the sanctuary mantel again in 2017, but the change does mean that carrying the mantel will not look exactly like it did, and not just for St. Francis House. In 2017, sanctuary is not just a movement among churches. Cities, counties, and other institutional structures also claim the commitment. So the imagination will be new, and that is good and right. But that the imagination will be new does not mean that we must start from scratch. The history of the designs of injustice and their resistance (and sometimes faithful defiance) are there for us. They are our conversation partners and our cheerleaders in the work ahead. We should keep their stories close and cherish the chapters we have the privilege of living. 

No comments:

Post a Comment