Becoming a Sanctuary Church

“Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.” In resistance to the Executive Order banning refugees from seven majority Muslim countries and discriminating against Muslims, those have been the words on our sermon boards on both sides of our church. Until the Executive ban is fully rescinded, until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is no longer directed to raid immigrant homes in our community, and until DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals) candidates no longer live in fear of unfair deportation, that sign will continue to hang prominently in front of the church I serve: The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. As Christians seeking after God’s justice and because of our physical positioning — just four blocks east of the White House — we feel a deep calling to stand up as a Sanctuary Church.

Last spring Kathy Doan, a ruling elder at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and a longtime advocate for the immigrant community, and Maricelly Malave, Co-Founder of Sanctuary DMV (District Maryland Virginia), met with me to share an evolving need for churches and communities to join the New Sanctuary Movement. They shared the history of this ancient practice for temples, churches, and even whole cities to declare themselves as a place of refuge for people accused of crimes in which they feared unfair retribution. They shared that churches in the U.S. first provided sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad, helping slaves pass to freedom during the Civil War. In the 1970s, when refugees from the civil wars in Central America came to the United States seeking shelter, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees seeking asylum. Many were deported and faced death squads on their return. In response to this dire situation, the Sanctuary Movement was formed. At its peak, there were over 500 member congregations. In 1986, the Sanctuary Movement won the inclusion of Central America as part of our immigration laws.

Starting the summer of 2014, we started seeing the return of the humanitarian crisis with thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and forced gang participation in Central America seeking safely in the United States. Moreover, eleven million undocumented persons are living in the United States, many of whom have lived here for more than ten years. These members of our community — these friends, family members and neighbors — are all at risk of deportation. Read more

Sanctuary Art

The sanctuary of our historic church was intentionally redesigned in the late 1960’s to recapture the “blank slate” of a traditional, Reformed worship space. When you walk into the sanctuary, it feels like a special place of worship.

The challenge we face, however, is in capturing the imaginations of generations that are increasingly visual. We can set up LCD projectors for special occasions, but the architecture and sightlines make permanent installation of current technologies untenable. Not to mention, there are lots of folks (myself included!) who are not so convinced we want to invite this piece of culture into worship on a weekly basis.

So, what to do with the blank slate?

Several years ago, I envisioned a huge drape to dramatically mark the front of the sanctuary for Advent/Lent (purple) and Christmas/Easter (white). Fortunately, my co-pastor and husband is very handy and rigged a pulley system to raise the drape more than 30 feet to the apex of the arch over the nave and secure it. Unfortunately, that is about the extent of my personal creativity.

We have been focusing in recent years on emphasizing the seasons of the liturgical year. The drapes were a good start, but how to mark the progression of Advent in a dramatic way? Since my creative impulses often far outstrip my actual creative abilities, we approached our artists in residence with a scrap of an idea: displaying the scenes of the season as we progressively made our way to Bethlehem.


What you see in the photo is what they came up with. Figures cut from poster board, displayed on a purple backdrop. They were beautifully done and created a very dramatic effect on our blank slate. The scenes built upon one another each week. They were similar in theme to the bulletin covers and were easily incorporated into the children’s message and sermon.

The photos are the scene for Christmas Eve, with the white drape and star of Bethlehem also hung.

Through experiences like this one, we have discovered the incredible gift it is to the congregation to plan ahead and make space for creativity – both our creativity and that of others in the Body. Creative folks need opportunities to offer their particular gifts to God and the church, and the rest of the congregation is blessed with their creative perspectives and interpretations.