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A Letter to Leaders about the Sanctuary Declaration at Churchwide Assembly

By The Rev. Dr. Herman R. Yoos

Bishop, South Carolina Synod

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

There were many Holy Spirit surprises for me at this Churchwide Assembly. The first was having Bishop Eaton elected on the first ballot by 81% of those present. This has not happened before in the ELCA. A second surprise came with nearly 99% approval vote for setting aside June 17 as a day of prayer and commemoration of the Mother Emanuel 9. This resolution was not originally on our agenda but was added on Wednesday.

A third Holy Spirit surprise for me was another motion that came from the floor: that “The ELCA declares itself to be a sanctuary church body.” I admit my first reaction to this proposal was negative. I thought it could be confusing and divisive for many Lutherans in South Carolina. I was inclined to vote against it. But as I listened to a long and thoughtful debate, I was moved to support this resolution for the reasons I want to outline in this letter.

1. There was a clear sense in this debate of seeking to be obedient to God’s Word. Passages like these were read to the assembly:

Leviticus 19:34,
“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you and you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Matthew 25,
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

2. There was a clear awareness that ELCA Lutherans have been working for many years to provide aid, legal support and help in reuniting families at the border. In 2013, the ELCA committed to walking alongside Central American children and families through the AMMPARO Strategy (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities – We also are working with our global partners in Central America to alleviate the conditions there that cause people to migrate. Currently there is a network of 151 AMMPARO congregations that are working on welcoming immigrant communities in a variety of ways.

3. Several times during this debate, it was pointed out that this declaration of being a sanctuary denomination does not force any ELCA congregation to do anything. Rather it is an invitation for congregations to consider how in their context they choose to respond. For some it may include sending blankets and health kits through LWF. For others it may mean working with agencies like Lutheran Services Carolinas in settling refugees in this community. It could also include financial and legal support through AMMPARO to those who are working their way through the immigration system or temporary adoption of children who are waiting to be reunited. It could include hosting English classes as a second language or providing financial support and encouragement to our five Latino worshipping communities.

4. Being a Sanctuary Church means that the ELCA is publically declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith in Jesus Christ. It means in spite of our broken immigration system and paralysis of our congressional leaders to change it, we seek to be a denomination who will provide concrete solutions to assist the most vulnerable among us.

5. Being a sanctuary denomination recognizes that except for indigenous people or those who were brought here against their will in slavery, everyone else in the US came here as immigrants. The ELCA sees itself as an immigrant church, founded for and by the descendants of immigrants.

6. Being a sanctuary denomination means therefore we want to be public and vocal about this work of loving our neighbors as ourselves and seeing the immigrant and refugee as our neighbor. It means we are willing to have faithful conversations with our members and others who may not agree with this understanding in order to discern together how God is leading us on this journey. It means we don’t have all the answers, but we are willing to keep struggling faithfully with all who are impacted by our broken immigration system.

As these concerns were brought out during the debate, I found myself moving from being against the designation of the ELCA being a Sanctuary Church to voting affirmatively for this motion. That’s why I describe this as a Holy Spirit surprise, because it brought about an unexpected change in my perspective.

I believe as we live into being a sanctuary denomination in the future, we need to listen carefully to those who have differing thoughts and opinions on how best to respond to our immigration challenges. At the same time, I want to be clear that the ELCA is not calling on our congregations to break the law as it was wrongly reported on Fox News last week.

I hope my reflections on the assembly vote will be helpful to you in interpreting and talking together with your members. These are holy conversations where we can disagree and still be the body of Christ together. My prayers are with you my brothers and sisters in Christ as we lead our congregations and serving agencies in these important conversations. Along the way I pray that we also will find some Holy Spirit surprises.

Yours in Christ,

The Rev. Dr. Herman R. Yoos

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Contact Information

ELCA South Carolina Synod
1003 Richland Street
Columbia, SC 29201
Telephone 803-765-0590
Fax 803-252-5558

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