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Evalgelical Lutheran Church in America Northeastern Ohio Synod
Letters from Pastor Alan Smearsoll

October 2019

How did the ELCA end up designating itself a “sanctuary denomination?” This question still lingers on some people’s minds after the 2019 churchwide assembly in August. In order to address those lingering questions and put to rest any assumptions about church politics, I have done a great deal of research, and present to you the following observations:

The word sanctuary became associated with a “movement” in 1982 when a handful of congregations in California and Arizona opened their doors to protect undocumented immigrants fleeing their war-ridden countries. Some famous acts of sanctuary in history are:  Martin Luther’s life being spared by the sanctuary provided by Prince Frederick the Wise; The city of Salem providing sanctuary for many runaway slaves by participation in the underground railroad; Jews offered sanctuary in people’s homes to protect them from Hitler. What makes these acts of sanctuary good and sanctuary to immigrants seeking freedom today bad? I encourage you to read Matthew 25:34-46. Your denomination is making a public, Gospel-led response, to the current immigration situation the world faces today. It is not over and against current government or laws, but it is a humanitarian one, especially as it relates to advocacy and care for unaccompanied minors and keeping families together through the legal process. The church is saying that faith welcomes the stranger, sometimes with radical hospitality, but it is not calling for any illegal act on anyone’s part in doing so. This point is made very clear in a couple of statements from Bishop Elizabeth Eaton:  “Welcoming people is not a political issue for us, it is a matter of faith,” and “being a sanctuary denomination does not call for any person, congregation or synod to engage in any illegal actions.”

OK, I can understand what my denomination is trying to do, but couldn’t they have chosen another word for it? Why pick something that is such a “hot button” topic? I have included in this newsletter the process of how a memorial reaches the national assembly from the synod level and what it goes through before being recommended to the assembly. I also have included the recommended memorial for adoption by the assembly. You will note that the memorial committee’s recommendation to the assembly did not include designating the ELCA as a sanctuary denomination, but a motion was made and approved (718-191) to add the sanctuary designation to the final memorial that was adopted by majority. The people of this denomination, delegates from all over the country, by majority vote, told the church what they wanted their church to do. Now, the ELCA offices, by the desires of its members, must determine what this means for the church. This is how the process works in the ELCA, like it or not. This did not come from the “top down” nor was it influenced by an East/West coast stronghold, as some might assume.

So, what does this mean for Emmanuel? Nothing more than what we have already done. There is nothing that binds any individual congregation in any way. Each individual congregation is able to determine what this means in their own context. That is the beauty of our denomination. What does it mean in our context? If an undocumented individual or family came to me for help, we don’t have the proper resources to assist, but St. Paul’s does. I would notify the authorities and take them there where they can get the appropriate legal direction and assistance.

We could provide financial assistance to St. Paul’s as we have done before. The ELCA would say that this small act is providing sanctuary. By designating itself a sanctuary denomination, the “ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith.” This intentionally calls all of us to consider how our faith informs our viewpoints and not how our viewpoints inform our faith, which we sometimes get ourselves caught up in just like Peter (please read Matthew 16:21-23). I respect everyone’s opinions regarding immigration or border policies or sanctuary designat

I invite you to do your own research. Go to the ELCA’s website (www.elca.org) and explore the topics of immigration, sanctuary, or 2019 assembly. If it helps to express your thoughts to the larger church, e-mail or write to  ELCA Bishop Elizabeth Eaton (information on the ELCA website). You may also send an e-mail or letter to NEOS Bishop Abraham Allende through our synod website (www.neos-elca.org). If you’d like, you can also check out Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services at www.lirs.org to see how Lutherans have assisted in immigration for 80 years. Of course, I am always available for constructive conversation.

Regardless of opinion, all can pray. Pray for the migrants fleeing their homeland; the border patrol agents and ICE officers doing their jobs; detention facilities; children separated from parents; unaccompanied children; a just immigration policy; the end to violence in the countries they are fleeing; the list goes on. Pray for all of God’s children as we are reminded from Paul:  “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone…that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2) 

Pastor Alan

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