Sanctuary in Spirit
By Cathy Livingston, Published on November 28, 2017
I recently wrote a blog post called “Sanctuary in Practice” [http://uuneedham.org/sanctuary-in-practice/], about my conversation with Reverend Chris Jimmerson who serves as the Minister for Program Development at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, a level 1 sanctuary congregation. In this follow up blog post, I want to share how that conversation moved me spiritually.
Reverend Jimmerson first explained the process the Parish followed to become a Sanctuary Parish initially focused on the practical details involved. These were typical concerns: Would there be enough volunteers? Would the effort interfere with the Church’s other social action projects? Would raising money (if needed) divert financial resources from the Church’s fundraising efforts?
However, when their Sanctuary Committee met with the Parish Council to recommend becoming a Level 2 Parish, members of the Council challenged them to explain why they would recommend Level 2 as opposed to Level 1. The Council Members argued that if the process to become a Sanctuary Parish was viewed through the lens of the Church’s Mission and Values, the recommendation should instead focus on becoming a Level 1 Parish.
Later, the Congregation voted overwhelmingly to become a Level 1 Sanctuary. I was encouraged to hear this chain of events. Rev. Jimmerson believes the crucial element was when parishioners heard directly from the individual who had been a guest in Sanctuary at another church. This guest-in-residence shared his story, including the stress of living as an undocumented immigrant, the way his fears were realized when he received a deportation order, his challenge in deciding if sanctuary was the best option, and his explanation for why returning to his country was a dangerous option. Once congregants heard up close what many immigrants experience in their daily lives, they were so moved that the members voted overwhelming to become a Level 1 Sanctuary Parish.
Rev. Jimmerson said that his church’s spiritual growth since starting this process has re-invigorated his Church in a ways he had not imagined. He believes that having a guest in sanctuary has energized his members’ faith and their sense of empowerment, simply by recognizing how their actions and efforts could make such a profound difference in someone’s life. In fact, despite being less organized in their first time hosting a guest, he believes that more congregants stepped up to help the second time based on how people shared the positive benefits of living their faith. Their connection with the network of other Austin based congregations has also enriched them in numerous ways and provided additional insights, such as the additional danger one LGBTQ guest faced when some faith-based organizations refused to provide him sanctuary.
I wish I could better capture Rev. Jimmerson’s tone when he described these events to me. His passion and energy indicated both his joy in being a part of such an important movement and his renewed sense of purpose and love for his faith community and his faith. Yes, he admitted that at times at the beginning, when a guest arrived without the Church being fully prepared, it could be stressful, as if “the Church was building the bicycle as they were riding it.” But he takes pride that they now share these lessons with other congregations to make the process easier and enable more to join this movement.
I have been part of the Sanctuary Task Force that has been gathering information since June in order to enable our Parish to assess its willingness to commit to becoming a Sanctuary Parish. My efforts were guided initially by my belief in the importance of providing assistance to others who were experiencing suffering and disruption in their lives. But as often happens when working on such initiatives, my humanitarian impetus for getting involved became less visible as I became immersed In sorting through the practical aspects of such a decision.
Two events – both with their origins in Texas – brought me back to my center. The first was the news story that reported on a large church’s initial refusal to open its doors to flood victims in the Houston area. My immediate reaction led to my asking myself the question, “Will this be us – First Parish – if we choose not to get involved in the Sanctuary movement?” My conversation with Rev. Jimmerson in Austin served as the tipping point in revealing the clarity of why I hoped our Parish would ultimately choose to become a Sanctuary Parish. His enthusiastic description of the spiritual benefits for all involved in becoming a Sanctuary congregation was compelling, and it re-enforced for me that the decision flows out of our stated spiritual beliefs. It provides us with an opportunity to put our stated values and beliefs into action.
On December 10 at 12pm in the sanctuary, First Parish will vote on becoming a sanctuary supporting congregation. Please join us.
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews, 13:2)