For more than 13 years, Miriam Vargas has lived in Columbus, Ohio. While there, she had two children, held a job, paid taxes—and has been an undocumented immigrant.

Vargas and her sister escaped Honduras after their family was threatened by gangs, and at the border she received a six-month visa permitting her to enter the United States.

But as a young woman who didn’t know the language or customs of a new country, she didn’t receive the paperwork telling her about her court date when it was sent four years later, because she no longer lived at the address to which it was mailed.

During the Obama administration, Vargas was repeatedly granted extensions to stay in the country by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But in May 2018 she was told, “You have 30 days—buy your tickets, you have to leave,” said Sally Padgett, pastor of First English Lutheran Church in Columbus.

Yet Vargas—who has a 10-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old daughter with severe autism, both of whom are U.S. citizens—knew she couldn’t do that.

Vargas, Padgett said, shared with her that “she was told, ‘You either take your girls [back to Honduras],’ which is the most dangerous country in the world right now, ‘or you leave them here for adoption.’

“And that, to me, is heartbreaking, as a mother.”

“You really have to define sanctuary in your context and what it means to accompany people.”

When Padgett heard of Vargas’ situation, she asked her congregation if they would become a sanctuary hosting site for Vargas. After the congregation took an affirmative vote, Vargas and her two daughters moved into the church building in June 2018.

Today, First English continues to house and support Vargas and her daughters as she works to become a legal citizen. Such hospitality is an expression of the congregation’s faith, affirmed by the wider church.

Last August, the 2019 Churchwide Assembly voted 718-191 to declare the ELCA a sanctuary denomination. The declaration builds on the church’s commitment to accompany migrant children and families through its AMMPARO strategy, which was approved by the 2016 Churchwide Assembly. (AMMPARO stands for Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities.)

The 2019 vote both brought the denomination increased media attention and raised questions within the ELCA about what it means to be a sanctuary church body.

For some congregations, such as First English, the sanctuary denomination vote affirmed the work they had already been doing to serve their immigrant neighbors. For others, it was a call to action and an awakening to the plight many undocumented immigrants face.

Some ELCA members are still seeking to understand what they can or should do following the vote, wondering where their congregations fit under this denominational declaration.

“You really have to define sanctuary in your context and what it means to accompany people,” said Christopher Vergara of St. Peter Lutheran Church in New York City, who put forward the amendment to declare the ELCA a sanctuary church body. “We have to figure that out as the ELCA, as synods, as congregations and as individuals.”

What is sanctuary?

In her role as AMMPARO program director, Mary Campbell advises ELCA members and communities engaged in sanctuary and AMMPARO ministry. The ELCA has said a “sanctuary denomination” is a church body that walks alongside immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers as a matter of faith, she clarified.

For seven ELCA “hosting” congregations, she said, that has meant providing physical shelter for an undocumented immigrant. Some congregations, such as First English, are housing undocumented immigrants indefinitely; others provide housing for 24 or 48 hours during an ICE raid because they also house schools or lack showers or other features necessary for long-term sanctuary.

For 40 additional sanctuary congregations connected to the AMMPARO network, Campbell added, responding to the church’s call to be sanctuary has meant accompanying undocumented immigrants in other ways.

“My congregation decided to declare itself a sanctuary congregation … because we have a large immigrant population, largely Hispanic, where 75% of the people are undocumented,” said Vergara, who is St. Peter’s council president. “We grew to understand the issues and the needs of undocumented people in our community.”

As a historic church in Manhattan, St. Peter lacks showers and is unable to house overnight guests. “We had to discover a definition of sanctuary that wasn’t only about providing long-term housing for individuals in fear of deportation. … It’s accompanying them with legal assistance, food, [off-site] housing, with mental health support—with all the things a church community in its truest sense can provide.”

“For us, it’s a broader understanding of what sanctuary is, which is sanctuary everywhere—for people to feel safe and free and whole in their lives.”

Ron Werner Jr., an ELCA pastor and community organizer in the Oregon Synod—one of five in the ELCA to declare itself a sanctuary synod—works closely with the Interfaith Movement for Immigration Justice (IMIrJ), an organization that helps Oregon communities and people of faith advance immigrant justice. But that rarely means housing an undocumented immigrant.

“We have had no one in [physical] sanctuary for over five years,” Werner said. “For us, it’s a broader understanding of what sanctuary is, which is sanctuary everywhere—for people to feel safe and free and whole in their lives.”

Some congregations are involved in accompaniment programs, supporting people who are afraid, Werner said. Congregants escort undocumented immigrants to court appointments and asylum proceedings and help them check in with ICE.

Other congregations host English as a Second Language classes or hold discussions on what our faith says about immigration. Others answer the call in the streets, Werner said, marching to advocate for just immigration laws.

Sanctuary can be many things, but most agree it’s not a solution to a broken immigration system. Usually, Padgett said, it’s a method of buying time to fight deportation on a legal front.

“The end game is for a just immigration system that would not seek to harm people who are trying to enter this country,” Vergara said.

Is sanctuary legal?

The vote to become a sanctuary denomination is not an encouragement to break the law, Vergara said.

“We are not, in any way, calling anybody to engage in illegal activity,” he added. “If you are engaging in having a long-term person staying and an ICE agent comes with a signed warrant for that person, most advocates would say you should go with that ICE agent.”

Providing sanctuary is not illegal, Campbell said. However, she noted that the American Civil Liberties Union states that congregations should be aware of what is illegal: harboring, concealing or shielding from detection an undocumented immigrant when done with knowledge or “reckless regard” for that person’s unlawful status; and transporting or moving an undocumented immigrant when that transportation helps the immigrant remain in the United States unlawfully.

“Almost every single hosting congregation in the ELCA is very public about the fact that they have someone in sanctuary,” Campbell said. “It’s known by the community, it’s known by immigration officials, and immigration officials know who these individuals are. … They’re not hiding it.”

Still, Campbell said, if a congregation is considering becoming a hosting congregation, it should hire an attorney to protect itself from the myriad ways immigration laws can be interpreted.

Becoming a sanctuary denomination doesn’t mean every ELCA congregation has to become a sanctuary church. But it does mean every congregation is encouraged to discuss the topic.

That’s what University Lutheran Church—located in Cambridge, Mass., just off the Harvard University campus—did in 2017 before housing a young mother with two small girls, whom they still host today.

First, the congregation offered clear expectations for anyone seeking sanctuary within the church. “We made it a requirement that anybody who was going to come and live in our space had to have a lawyer because it was important that this person would really be on a path to permanency,” said Kathleen O’Keefe Reed, pastor of University.

Second, the congregation itself sought legal counsel, finding a firm that agreed to work pro bono. “It turned out the kind of lawyer we needed was not an immigration specialist but a First Amendment specialist, because what we do is an expression of faith and ministry,” Reed said.

Becoming a sanctuary denomination doesn’t mean every ELCA congregation has to become a sanctuary church. But it does mean every congregation is encouraged to discuss the topic.

“What we’re basically telling congregations … [is that] they should educate themselves about sanctuary. Learn what it is and what it isn’t,” Campbell said. “If they want to prepare themselves in case someone would show up at their door and they’re not a sanctuary congregation, they should know who in their area they could turn to, to help the person requesting assistance.”

And while not every undocumented immigrant is a political refugee, those who are have a legal right of asylum in the United States and around the world.

A “political” issue?

At least 80% of the members of St. Paul Lutheran, Lodi, Calif., belong to “mixed-status” families in which someone has documentation issues, said Nelson Rabell-Gonzáles, a pastor of the congregation.

Because of that reality, the congregation became a sanctuary church in 2018, supporting immigrants, aiding immigration groups and connecting members to legal and advocacy groups.

Just prior to the 2019 Churchwide Assembly, St. Paul conducted a media blitz to publicly declare itself a sanctuary congregation as a prophetic response to injustice, Rabell-Gonzáles said.

“The incarceration of children [by ICE] was a turning point,” he noted. “By last summer, we had already a sizable Spanish community worshiping with us. Last March, 30 kids did their first communion [with us]. … We looked at that and said, ‘We have to take a stand.’”

St. Paul’s immigration ministry didn’t change significantly after the assembly vote, but the legitimacy of the congregation’s work increased, he said, adding, “It gave us more inroads to the community, because we had that badge of honor. That’s why our ministry keeps growing.”

“We are called throughout the Bible to care for the stranger.”

Not all ELCA members agree that the assembly vote was the correct route to take as a denomination.  “My congregation has a variety of perspectives on this issue,” said Tyler Beane Kelly, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in The Dalles, Ore.

But while they may have different ideas about how to fix the U.S. immigration system, Lutherans can agree that loving the neighbor is central to their faith.

Kelly has seen members of his congregation changed by stories of people directly affected by the immigration system. “[Like] this father [who] has been detained for three years and he’s never met his daughter because his wife was pregnant when he was taken by ICE,” he said. “Using a real story, instead of a theory, that works better.”

Some members question why the ELCA voted on what can be considered a “political” issue. Supporters say it’s not political but a social ministry defined by Scripture.

Since the time of the early church, Christians have offered sanctuary, continuing a biblical practice in which cities and houses of worship provided refuge and asylum for people fleeing injustice.

“We are called throughout the Bible to care for the stranger,” Vergara said. “And it goes from Moses’ mother putting her baby in the Nile to [give him] a better life, and God takes care of that baby, to [stories of] being a stranger in a foreign land. It keeps coming up in the Bible, and I think people resonate with that.”

How should we respond?

The best way to figure out how your congregation can engage with sanctuary ministry is to listen to those around you, Reed said. When University considered becoming a hosting congregation, its staff spent a month conversing with members one-on-one to hear their views and concerns.

And, importantly, the congregation took time to listen to their neighbors. “You need to place yourself in a position so you can hear the stories of your immigrant neighbors,” Reed said. “Our members are from all over the country, and they go to Thanksgiving dinner … and they hear, ‘How can you do something for these illegals?’

“To be able to respond firsthand from a personal depth of knowledge about what’s it like to be a mother or a father or an unaccompanied minor for whom getting out of where they live is a matter of life or death, it’s like growing capacity for empathy by listening.”

Those engaged in sanctuary work also recommend that congregations utilize their surroundings to help determine what their ministry around the issue could look like.

Kelly points to the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities (NORCOR), a public county jail in The Dalles that has contracted with ICE in order to help balance its budget.

“[Start] small, start in an obvious place; you don’t have to go way out of your way.”

“The problem is immigrants who are being detained at NORCOR are sometimes detained for two, three, four years,” Kelly said. “And the facility really can’t provide the resources that somebody in that situation would need.” It isn’t built to handle face-to-face family visitations, he said.

In May 2017, he and a group of clergy began visiting undocumented immigrants detained at NORCOR. “You get a feel for what it’s like to live without documentation in this country,” he said.

Kelly’s situation may be unique, but he noted that if he hadn’t been in contact with the IMIrJ network to learn about the detainees, the ministry may not have come to fruition.

Those active in sanctuary ministry emphasize the need for congregations, wherever they’re located, to create relationships with people in their communities.

“A lot of our towns that are small and rural still have significant Latino populations that live and work there,” Kelly said. “They’re your neighbors, they’re your roofing contractors, they work in your restaurants, they farm or pick fruit, and they work in your local nonprofits and schools.

“Following the relationships was what Jesus was all about, and all the countless stories of people whom he was engaging with were on the margins. [Start] small, start in an obvious place; you don’t have to go way out of your way.”

Next steps

Learn more and complete a survey about being a sanctuary denomination at

Get involved with AMMPARO
Learn more about the ELCA’s AMMPARO strategy at

Engage in sanctuary work through prayer. For example, pray for the safety of migrant children and families on the journey and for justice as they reach their destinations.

Become a welcoming congregation
Accompany children and families through their transition to life in the U.S.

Accompany migrant children and families through the Guardian Angel Program as the physical presence of the church in the courtroom. Or consider joining a local visitation ministry at detention centers. Learn more.

Advocate for justice for migrant children and families:

Support AMMPARO in providing opportunities for children and families in Central America and in the U.S.

Host a Bible study
The ELCA offers a downloadable sanctuary Bible study. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) offers a Bible study series that discuss Biblical stories of migration.

Host workshops
Work with local advocacy or legal groups to host workshops for undocumented immigrants.

Hold on to valuables
Offer your congregation as a place for migrants to leave copies of valuable papers (legal documents, medical records, etc.).

Migrant & Refugee Sunday
LIRS offers additional Bible studies, videos, devotionals and meditations, plus monthly commentaries written by faith leaders who have been refugees or migrants, for Migrant & Refugee Sunday.

Stephanie N. Grimoldby
Grimoldby is a freelance writer living in Antioch, Ill.

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