Sanctuary Church Body – What does this mean?

 In Synod News

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

We have just returned from a full and busy week at the 15th Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee. The churchwide assembly is the highest legislative authority of the ELCA. Over 900 voting members from all 65 synods participated in the week-long triennial assembly to discuss and deliberate important matters of the Church.

One of those topics which you may have heard about through national news outlets was the decision to declare the ELCA as a “sanctuary church body”.

In simplest form, becoming a sanctuary church body or denomination means that as the Church, we are publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. Accompanying immigrants and migrants is already a strategy of the Church through the work of AMMPARO.

Being a sanctuary denomination will look different across different contexts. Each congregation will need to discern what this means for them in their context.

Legally, here is what the action by the Churchwide Assembly means:

  • The Churchwide Assembly’s declaration that the ELCA is a sanctuary denomination binds only the ELCA Churchwide Organization; it does not bind congregations, synods, or other organizations;

  • The Churchwide Assembly did not call for any illegal actions, all actions mentioned by the Churchwide Assembly are legal, and whether any person or organization chooses to engage in civil disobedience (and therefore accept the consequences) is up to them;

  • The Churchwide Assembly did not define what it means to be a sanctuary denomination, but rather requested that the ELCA Church Council provide guidance as to what it means to be a sanctuary denomination.

Please see this linked ACLU resource. This is an excellent explainer of the difference between legal and illegal actions that often fall under the name “sanctuary”, and the gray areas around there.

Finally, being a sanctuary denomination is about loving our neighbors. While we may have different ideas about how to fix the immigration system and different ways of loving our neighbors, our call to love our neighbor is central to our faith.

May God bless you all as you hold conversations and decisions in Christ’s name.

In Christ,

Bishop David B. Zellmer
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