I have let the story about Elvira Arellano go by for a while now without comment. She is the woman who invoked sanctuary in a United Methodist Church in Chicago in order to avoid deportation. I haven’t written anything yet mostly because I’m still processing the whole story, and I don’t really have anything new and helpful to contribute to the conversation. But here’s where I am at this point.
First, I notice the words we use. Some news sources identify Ms. Arellano as an “activist” and others as an “illegal immigrant,” which are both accurate descriptors, but each shades the story in very differing lights. An activist is likely to be a heroic figure who is taking a principled stand against a large, unjust system. An illegal immigrant is a criminal who is defying the law of the nation. The power of the words we use to talk about one another cannot be minimized. I even read one story that kept referring to her as a “deportee,” which isn’t accurate, but paints a great “innocent victim” picture for the reader.
Secondly, I have seen how some news sources highlight the fact that she is a mother doing what she thinks is best for her son. This perspective stirs yet another emotional response, because except for the test tube babies among us, every one of us has a mother. If Ms. Arellano is cast as a strong mother acting on behalf of her child, like a mother hen gathering her chick under her wing, it becomes a bit more difficult to flat out condemn her actions. “I hope my mom would do the same for me,” we think to ourselves.
And then thirdly, there’s the role of the church to consider. The idea of a church “sanctuary” as a safe haven for someone who has gotten into trouble with authorities is ancient. Part of the reason many church doors are painted red, in fact, is tied to this notion. There is a wonderful episode of M*A*S*H in which Father Mulcahey takes a stand against the M.P.s who are pursuing a soldier who has gone a.w.o.l. In doing so, he declares the mess tent, where worship service is held each week, a sanctuary and forbids the authorities to enter.
I may have missed it somewhere, but I don’t find any official statement in the Book of Discipline about the United Methodist Church’s stance on providing sanctuary – one way or the other. I interpret that to mean that it would be the decision of the local congregation whether or not to take such a step, since it is not forbidden. So I pose the question – “How would I, as pastor of First UMC, North KC respond to a request for sanctuary?” The only answer I can give is, “It depends.”
Clearly, Adalberto United Methodist Church has made it a big part of their identity to be in ministry with the immigrant community, so we are talking about two different contexts here. But we have begun a Hispanic Ministry based in our congregation, and held one immigration forum earlier this summer, so we are at least somewhat involved with the issue. So it would not be entirely out of the question for an undocumented immigrant to show up in Northtown some day and say, “Sanctuary.” What would I do?
I kinda sorta think that the church should provide sanctuary when it is requested, no matter what. But I most definitely think that what happens next is vitally important. There must be a focused, intentional pastoral response. The only option, really, is to respond pastorally, if I am to be faithful to my call. That may mean standing in the door denying entrance to INS officers, I suppose. But it also means confronting the sanctuary seeker with the perhaps harsh realities of the situation they are in, as well as the situation into which they have put the church by their chosen course of action. It’s not my role to squeal to the cops, but it’s not my role to enable destructive behavior, either.
I served as Music Director for a church in Illinois that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Do you ever wonder what that must have been like? Harboring a fugitive slave, providing sanctuary from the authorities seeking to deport them back to the south, in essence receiving stolen property and keeping it hidden – all illegal activities at the time, and a very interesting parallel to the situation at hand, I think. I imagine that there were some decent, hard working church people who disapproved of such activity, just as there are people in today’s world who disapprove of assisting immigrants in their struggles.
Of course, today slavery is almost universally condemned, but at the time it most certainly was not. Harboring a runaway was a crime that carried serious consequences, even for a church. Will there be a time somewhere down the road when the criminialization of immigration is similarly condemned, and churches that provided sanctuary for people avoiding deportation are celebrated as historic sites, the way Underground Railroad sites are in some places?
I don’t know Elvira Arellano, and I’m sure I’ll never meet her or anything, but if she really is just a hard working single mom trying to live her life as best as she can while providing opportunity for her son to flourish, all the best to her. I pray that everything gets worked out with justice, kindness, and humility.