Serving As A Sanctuary Church

ICE has kicked off raids in response to orders from the Obama administration. Since January 1, 2016 Homeland Security has announced that it may be enforcing laws to deport or detain undocumented immigrants in the United States. Already 121 immigrants have been detained mostly from North Carolina, Georgia and Texas. If the raids come to New York and Connecticut, how will we respond together as a community of faith?

The laws that govern immigration in the U.S. are not only unjust, but in the words of Bishop Minerva Carcano, “Discourage us from living out our faith imperatives to love and help our neighbor with particular concern for those who suffer most.”

One way we can put our faith in action is agreeing as a church to provide emergency sanctuary. The New York Annual Conference Immigration Task Force is working along with the New Sanctuary Coalition to put together a list of churches that could serve as Sanctuary Churches for those in need of short-term emergency sanctuary.

Below we have put together an information sheet answering questions that your churches might have such as:

What does it means to provide sanctuary?

What are the responsibilities of the church?

What if we don’t have a kitchen or beds or other facilities?

What are the liabilities?

Is your church willing to help when needed in this emergency situation?
If so, please contact Bruce Lamb, CBCS Assistant Coordinator of Social Justice, Engagement and Advocacy at (917)-580-0830 or bruce.lamb@nyac-umc.com

Sanctuary FAQ Sheet

An Ancient Tradition of Faith Communities

Sanctuary is one of the most ancient traditions that we have as a people of faith. The ancient Hebrew people allowed temples and even whole cities to declare themselves places of refuge for persons accused of a crime, a practice that allowed those wrongfully accused or facing unjust punishment to escape swift and harsh retribution until the matter could be resolved. In the late Roman Empire fugitives could find refuge in the precincts of Christian churches. Later during the medieval period, churches in England were recognized sanctuaries, offering safe haven for a temporary period to accused wrong doers. In the United States the first practical provision of anything like sanctuary occurred in the years before the Civil War. The Underground Railroad came into being to help slaves flee the South and find safety in many congregations throughout the country. In the early 1970’s faith communities opened their doors to conscientious objectors who’d been drafted to the Vietnam War.

Sacred Texts

  • God calls people of faith to remember that they once were strangers in a strange land and they must, must welcome the stranger as an expression of covenant faithfulness (Leviticus 19:33-34)
  • We must “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17)
  • We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27)
  • Parable of the Good Samaritan, a foreigner from a different sect saves the victim on the roadside (Luke 10:25-37)
  • Book of Ruth, the story of a foreign woman heroine who is fulfilling God’s purpose. We remember the famous words of Naomi to Ruth on the road from Moab to the land of Judah, "Where you go I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16)

What does it mean to be a “Sanctuary Church”

Sanctuary churches agree to provide a 24-hour emergency number for contact.  Sanctuary is basic4ally prison and New Sanctuary Coalition will do everything to get people back out. The church will provide short-term emergency housing. New Sanctuary Coalition will provide volunteers for legal assistance and relocation.

What are the requirements to serve as a sanctuary church?

A sanctuary church is just that – provides safe sanctuary inside the church on a very short-term basis.  The immigrant can sleep in the pews; no beds or cots are required.  New Sanctuary Coalition volunteers will assist with food, legal advice and reaching out to ICE.  If the situation persists, New Sanctuary Coalition will relocate the person to long-term housing.

Do we have to supply beds? Air mattresses?

No, this is an emergency situation. Again, the immigrant seeking refuge could sleep in the pews. This is a situation where the person is looking for very short-term housing.   

What about Food? Does the church need a functioning kitchen?

If the church does not have food or a functioning kitchen that is fine. New Sanctuary Coalition will organize for volunteers to take meals. Volunteers from New Sanctuary will provide meals so this is not a burden on the church.  

Legal Liabilities

Everyone always wants to know are we breaking the law? NO!

There is a law against bringing in and harboring persons not authorized to be in the U.S.[1] While we are clearly not bringing people in, whether we are harboring someone is up for interpretation. Some courts have interpreted harboring to require concealment of a person. When we declare Sanctuary for an individual we are bringing them into the light of the community, not concealing them in the dark of secrecy.[2] Other courts have interpreted harboring to be simple sheltering.[3]

Those who are entering sanctuary will most likely have an opportunity to win relief from deportation, this means that they are not a high priority for deportation and that ICE can and should grant them prosecutorial discretion. In essence, the Sanctuary Movement is holding the administration accountable to their own standards and guidelines as put forth by the President’s Executive Actions.

New guidelines for Prosecutorial Discretion

ICE Sensitive Locations

The space of sanctuary is sacred. Immigration officials know that if they went into a house of worship to arrest a pastor they would have a public relations nightmare on their hands. To date no one has ever been arrested for offering Sanctuary.


[1] INA Sec.274

[2] U.S. V Costello, 66 F.3d 1040 (7th Cir. 2012)

[3] U.S. V Acosta de Evans, 531 F.2d 428 (9th Cir. 1976)