Dear Friends in Christ,
When I was growing up, our neighbor to the south was Mr. Hans Christian Seng. He and his wife Mary operated a “mom and pop greenhouse”. They regularly brought us tomato and cucumber “starts” for our garden. After Mary died, and Hans grew older, our family spent a lot of time helping him. Hans was born in Germany. His father was killed in World War I. His mother could not care for the children, so the oldest 2 boys were sent to America in 1921. Hans was 15 years old. His brother was 14. The Lutheran Church sponsored the boys, paid their passage across the Atlantic, enrolled them in school, taught them English, and found them jobs. For the rest of his days, Hans remained grateful for the help he received from the Lutheran Church.
Lutherans have a long and rich history of helping immigrants and refugees. Since 1939, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services have been doing this important work on our behalf. After World War II, the world was not too eager to help the German people, but the Lutherans in America offered aid to German refugees. After the Vietnam War, many Lutheran congregations helped Vietnamese and Hmong people live and thrive in America. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is an immigrant church who has been long committed to serving the alien and the immigrant.
In the Torah we read, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). The Prophet Jeremiah writes, “Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3). In Matthew 22, Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. And to love our neighbor as ourselves. In Matthew 25, Jesus shows us what this love can look like when it is put into action. “For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).
Caring for the vulnerable, the stranger and the alien is deeply rooted in God’s Word and lived through the people of God on a daily basis through the power of the Holy Spirit. God wants us to remember who we were and from whence we came, so that we might grow and mature into the loving and compassionate people God longs for us to be. God wants us to be a people who remember and a people who act.
Let’s be honest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is an immigrant church. Many of our ancestors came to this country to seek a better life for their children and grand-children. Some came to avoid war and poverty. Some came to experience religious freedom. Some were brought to this country against their will. The hopes and dreams of our ancestors continue to live in us, just as our hopes and dreams continue to live in those who will follow us. As the people of God in this place and time, I ask us to prayerfully ponder what kind of a legacy we long to leave our children and grand-children. My prayer is that we leave a legacy of faith, compassion, and love.
As many of you know, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America met in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from August 5-10, for its triennial Churchwide Assembly. We worshiped, prayed, and studied Scripture. We re-elected our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton to a second six-year term. We celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women. On August 7, we adopted a resolution that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America become a “sanctuary church body”. The language of the resolution is as follows:
To reaffirm the long-term and growing commitment of this church to migrants and refugees and to the policy questions involved, as exemplified most recently in the comprehensive strategy Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities (AMMPARO);
To recognize that the ELCA in congregations, synods and the churchwide organization are already taking the actions requested by this memorial; and
To request that appropriate staff on the AMMPARO team, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services LIRS and the Domestic Mission, Global Mission, and Mission Advancement units review the existing strategies and practices by the five current sanctuary synods and develop a plan for additional tools that provide for education and discernment around sanctuary; and
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declares itself a sanctuary church body; and
To request the ELCA Church Council, in consultation with the appropriate churchwide units and offices, provide guidance for the three expressions of this church about what it means to be a sanctuary church body and provide a report to the 2022 Churchwide Assembly.
This resolution has fostered a lot of interest, debate, and critique among us. Some in our church body are delighted at this news. Some are apprehensive and concerned. Some are angry. Some have spoken out in ways that do not reflect the love of Jesus. I encourage us to reflect the light and love of Jesus in our words and deeds.
As we prayerfully consider the “sanctuary church body” resolution that was passed on August 7, a few points of clarification of “what does this mean” and “what does this not mean” may be helpful.
What does this mean?
- We will continue to seek God’s guidance through God’s Word, prayer, and faithful discernment and deliberation.
- We will continue our long history of working with immigrants and helping to resettle refugees through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services
- We will continue to learn from those in our church who are working directly with migrants and refugees
- We will await the development of educational resources that will help our congregations and the people of God grow in our Biblical and theological understanding of serving migrants and refugees
- We will await the report of the ELCA Church Council (due in 2022) that will offer guidance and definition related to this “sanctuary church body” resolution
What does this not mean?
- The Churchwide Assembly’s declaration that the ELCA is a sanctuary denomination binds only the ELCA Churchwide Organization; it does not bind congregations, synods, or other organizations. Congregations, synods, and ministries cannot be mandated or directed to respond in specific ways.
- The Churchwide Assembly did not call for any illegal actions, all actions approved by the Churchwide Assembly are legal, and whether any person or organization chooses to engage in civil disobedience (and therefore accept the consequences) is up to them.
- The Churchwide Assembly did not define what it means to be a sanctuary denomination, but rather requested that the ELCA Church Council provide guidance and resources for what it means to be a sanctuary denomination in 2022.
My prayer for our church is that we continue to follow Jesus in our love for God and for neighbor. And that the Holy Spirit will continue to stretch and grow us to become the people God longs for us to be.
Bishop Daniel Beaudoin