Here’s a story you may recognize: a family find themselves in a frightening political situation and so they leave their home country. They are particularly worried about the safety of their child, because children are being targeted as victims by the country’s regime. The parents are young, scared, and economically unstable. They hope very much that they can someday come back to their family and friends, that someday they can come home. For now, they must flee with their child and what they can carry.
Pause a moment and think about what scene comes to mind with this story. It might be a Syrian family fleeing the Assad regime and Syria’s civil war. It might be a family in Mexico, Guatemala, or Nicaragua whose child is being pressured to serve the drug cartels. Perhaps you are thinking of children forced to become child soldiers in the Central African Republic. Then again, you may have an image of child laborers in Myanmar.
It appears that this story is universal. People all over the world are seeking to escape peril and bring themselves and their families into safety. This story is also, sadly, timeless. For the story that I am telling comes from our foundational book, the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, chpt 2:13-15:13
When [the wise men] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Not all the gospels tell this story, of course, but what does it mean that such a central story in the Bible, the story of Jesus birth and childhood, depicts him as a refugee and migrant fleeing from a brutal dictator who wants to eradicate possible rivals, even if they are small children? How should our theology and faith respond to the presence of this story? And what does it mean that Jesus, as he grew to adulthood, was constantly on the move—that foxes have their dens and birds have their nests, but Son of Man had no place to lay his head?
If Jesus, who is our exemplar and teacher, had no stable home and no sure safe space, how do we think about what sanctuary might be for us? The word sanctuary comes from the Latin for “holy” and was usually understood to designate a place that was especially touched by God’s presence. Eventually, this got enlarged to mean a holy place where people could seek haven, a kind of a free zone where the usual laws didn’t apply. I am intrigued by the contradiction of Jesus as a placeless, really rather homeless person and our ideal of the sanctuary as some kind secure fortress in which threatened people are impervious to danger.
Jesus’s community of fellowship did not flourish and grow because early Christians above all wanted to be safe. Martin Luther King, Junior’s Beloved Community, as witnessed through civil rights action was, similarly, a community that imperiled itself and its members in the name of justice and love. The sanctuary movement of the 1980’s took on the legal risk of civil disobedience, breaking laws that seemed inhumane and unethical. I suggest that these two communities carried their sense of sanctuary within them, that sanctuary is a placeless place, a portable holiness.
For the last couple of months, I have been reading a book called A Radical Faith, about Sister Maura Clarke, one of the Maryknoll sisters who was ultimately assassinated in the 1980’s in El Salvador. During her years of mission work, she lived for some time in Guatemala. Like all the Maryknoll order, Sister Maura lived in simplicity in the poorest neighborhoods. When Guatemala City was struck by a huge earthquake in 1976 and most of the poorest people of the city (who were often immigrants and displaced indigenous people) were evacuated to ramshackle refugee camps, Sister Maura and her household up and moved with them! The best sanctuary they had to offer to displaced people was themselves. Their faith was an immigrant faith: it moved with the people as the people moved through trauma and transition.
How do we use the biblical model and the model of people like Maura Clarke or Martin Luther King, Jr. to respond with heart and faith to the predicament of people who are displaced and immigrant? How we can stretch our community to truly become what Martin Luther King, Junior called the Beloved Community?
There are some foundational stories in my life that I return to again and again. One of these is the story of the people of Le Chambon sur Loire in the south of France. During the time of the Vichy government (the German occupation) in the south of France, the people of Le Chambon quietly began giving sanctuary to Jewish refugees in their homes. If German officers came to their homes, they had an elaborate alarm system that sent their Jewish guests into the woods to hide, and yet these people also politely invited German officers into their homes, fed and welcomed them, and refused to make Germans their enemies. When, after the war, they were asked about this extraordinary activity—a commitment that endangered the lives of people who lived in the town—interviewers were consistently surprised at the way people of the village shrugged it off: “They were people in need and it was the right thing to do.” This demonstrates a depth of faith in the Beloved Community: The people were willing to risk their lives to protect vulnerable refugees while simultaneously showing kindness to the Germans, also, were immigrants, strangers in a hostile place, and far from home.
Juan Felipe Herrera was the child of immigrants, migrant farmworkers who traveled thoughout central California working farms. In his beautiful children’s book, Calling the Doves, Herrera warmly recalls his itinerant childhood. He worked with his parents in the fields, seeking schooling when he could, participating in the migrant community’s festivals and celebrations. Who ever would have guessed that this child of illegal aliens would grow up to be the Poet Laureate of the United States? Yet his poem, “Every Day We Get More Illegal,” speaks to a lingering sense of unsettledness and separation, “laws pass…detention cells,” through which families are separated, “broken slashed” in “spirit exile.”
His poem ends:
under the silver darkness
with our mind
What stands out to me here is the ongoing rhythm of movement and effort, walking working, walking working. Perhaps as people with homes and citizenship, it is easy for us to think of the Beloved Community as something stable, as an ideal that could be fulfilled. I would argue that the Beloved Community is always unfinished. It is complex and sometimes contentious. It embraces values that may seem to be at odds with each other. It welcomes people who have suffered and are traumatized. The Beloved Community, our immigrant community, is a miraculous thing exactly because it is always a work in progress.
I remember going to the Quaker Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island in the mid-1980’s. We served as a sanctuary church for a Guatemalan family. There was a father and four children. When they first arrived, they spoke not a word of English, though they were good at conveying how shocked they were by the New England Winter! They were being smuggled to Canada for permanent residency, so we tried to warn them that winters weren’t going to get any better. Each week, we had a potluck at the church, and people brought clothing and bedding for the family. Quickly, the children began chattering in English, though their father, shocked and in grief, continued to speak only Spanish. We learned that their mother had been murdered by a militia, and the father packed up his children in the middle of the night and headed north.
On the last Sunday that the family was in Providence, the father, stood amidst the silence of the Quaker meditation. Hesitantly, he began to speak in Spanish. Soon he was weeping unabashedly. Across the room, a woman’s voice rose, calmly, clearly, translating what he said: his sadness, his gratitude, his homesickness, his faith. This to me has always been a moment of deepest grace, that a broken voice could rise and that a translator could bring its message to life. This is an immigrant faith, a sign of the beloved community. That sojourn in Providence didn’t erase the trauma of what had happened, but it expressed faith that our love together could save us and bring us together.
And now we find ourselves here together, and I see signs of hope. One of the peculiarities of my job, is that I read the Boulder County Jail roster each weekday morning. Suddenly, in January, I noticed that the jail is no longer stating whether inmates are citizens or not. A few weeks later, the City Council sent out an announcement that they would not be policing the city for illegal aliens and that the city of Boulder was willing to sacrifice federal monies as a result. Last week, I received an announcement that the City County would be contributing $10,000 to “dreamers,” noncitizen children who had grown up in the U.S. and are C.U. students. We are beginning to act together as the Beloved Community.
And so it is that I feel a sense of warmth and familiarity when I read Acts 2:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.