Church Leaders Call for Sanctuary in a Time of Walls
by Andrew J. Schleicher*
Fort Worth, TX, April 25, 2008--United Methodists should tell US President George W. Bush to "tear down this wall" with Mexico, said Bishop Felton E. May, bringing his audience to its feet at an open press conference on immigration issues held during the 2008 General Conference of the denomination.
Bishop May, interim general secretary for the General Board of Global Ministries, was one of several speakers on the church's response to current US immigration policies and practices. The press conference was sponsored by the United Methodist Task Force on Immigration. Global Ministries is one of the agencies participating in the taskforce.
The speakers focused primarily on how the church is and should be in ministry with immigrants and, in particular, the undocumented. "The church does not ask people whether they are documented or undocumented," Bishop May said. "The church does not ask whether a man, woman, or child is legal or illegal…. Our concern is that our fellowship and our services are open, compassionate, and generous."
Bishop May's comment on the wall harkened back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who challenged then Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
Bishop Joel N. Martinez of San Antonio, president of Global Ministries, moderated the press conference, where major focus fell on the topic of "sanctuary," or the ancient practice of persons taking refuge in religious structures. Congregations across the country and in many denominations are opening their church doors to be a sanctuary for those the US government does not recognize as having a legal right to live in this country.
"When people come to our churches, they believe they are coming to the house of a God of refuge, and we must be willing to be that refuge for our brothers and our sisters," said Erin Hawkins, general secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race.
"We have called this the New Sanctuary Movement, but in essence it is an ancient movement," said the Reverend David Farley of Echo Park United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. He connected it back to the hospitality practiced and advocated for in biblical days.
Rev. Farley also showed a t-shirt with four faces of persons seeking sanctuary. "It is for families such as these that the sanctuary movement was begun," he said. Echo Park participates in a collaborative sanctuary effort with other churches in its community.
Another congregation involved in the sanctuary movement is Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago. The Reverend Walter Coleman, Adalberto's pastor, told those gathered that in sanctuary "we offer no resistance except in prayers." Immigration officials have made it clear that they can enter a church building at any time to seize any undocumented persons for deportation.
Nevertheless, the offering of sanctuary continues. Rev. Coleman spoke admirably of Elvira Arelleno, whom the Chicago congregation hosted until last August. Arelleno became a prominent voice for the undocumented in the United States until she was
*Freelance journalist Andrew J. Schleicher is a member of the General Conference Communications team for the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Apr 25, 2008