06/26/2014 09:53 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2014

Sanctuary: The Movement Never Ended

When my church declared Sanctuary for a local Tucson man facing deportation almost 2 months ago, we were asked the same question over and over, "are you starting the Sanctuary Movement again?" These questions referred to the legacy of Southside as one of the founding churches of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980's. It was a fair question, one that I avoided answering as much as possible because we had not yet had a full congregational discernment process and I didn't want to commit my congregation to something they had not committed to themselves. So I avoided the question or put my own spin on it. Then when other churches started to call us, saying that they were thinking about declaring Sanctuary for an individual in their community -- I began to ask myself the same question, "was the Sanctuary Movement starting up again?" And after much thought and discernment, I have an answer: yes and no.

As I write this, Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix, Arizona is on the brink of welcoming an undocumented dad, Marco Tulio, into Sanctuary -- and so yes, there is a growing movement of people of faith who are tired of seeing neighbors disappeared from their communities by immigration officials. These outraged church ladies, Sunday School teachers, choir members and young conservative believers and old radical Christians are standing up and standing on the side of undocumented families and living out the scriptural call "to love our neighbor as ourselves." And so, yes; the spirit of Sanctuary is moving through communities of faith across our nation, one congregation at a time.

But on the other hand -- no, the Sanctuary Movement is not beginning again. And the reason I say no, is the assumption that the Sanctuary Movement ended at all and now needs to be started up again. Sanctuary is about Christian hospitality; it is about loving our neighbors; it is about caring for widows and orphans enough to act before they become widows and orphans; at its core Sanctuary is about being a Christian and there is no start and end date to being a Christian. When a church is being its most faithful to scripture it is always standing on the side of the oppressed and the persecuted. When Southside Presbyterian Church declared Sanctuary back on March 24, 1982, we didn't wake up that morning and suddenly decide to do something that was new for us. We had a long history of living out our faith in a God of justice through the racism of the institutional church which sought to marginalized our Tohono O'odham founding mothers and fathers; through the struggle for Civil Rights; through the fight for affordable housing; in each and every historical moment we heard the call to be a Sanctuary -- a shelter -- from all that sought to destroy the dignity and blessedness of the children of God.

After the "Sanctuary Movement" was over, we continued on with the same work by providing Sanctuary for our homeless brothers and sisters and for local day laborers. The historical context may change but the Spirit remains the same and the Spirit continues to urge us on to work for the kingdom of God, that beloved community, where all are welcomed and celebrated. It may be that as we live out our faith as Christians, there are times in which we are called to do so more publicly -- perhaps even calling press conferences, and writing editorials and marching and singing and perhaps even going to jail. But just because there are times when we are more public with our faith, does not mean that in the in-between time we are not continuing on with that same work. Sanctuary is who we are as a Christian people and so faithful to that call we welcomed Daniel Neyoy Ruiz and his family into our family and kept him from being deported. And in the Spirit of that call, we are once again working to see how we might provide care and hospitality to those fleeing war like conditions in Central America. And so to answer the question, "are you starting the Sanctuary Movement again?" I guess the only way to answer is to say, "we never stopped."