August 23, 2019
Bishop Kristen Kuempel sent the following information concerning actions taken by the Churchwide assembly in August. Along with the following information concerning being a sanctuary denomination, the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod is now the Northwest Intermountain Synod. We will be waiting for more direction from the synod office concerning the name chage.
The following has become a “hot topic” for some, so this provides some information as well as answers to some possible concerns and questions. Please feel free to talk to me about them. I don't know anymore than what is written here, but conversations are always good.
What does becoming a sanctuary denomination mean for the ELCA?
In its simplest form, becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. The ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the highest legislative authority of the ELCA, declared that when we preach on Sunday that Jesus told us to welcome, we will use our hands and voices on Monday to make sure it happens.
We have a broken system regarding immigration, refugees and asylum-seekers. To declare ourselves a sanctuary church body is to say that we seek to provide concrete resources to assist the most vulnerable who are feeling the sharp edges of this broken system.
Being a sanctuary denomination is about loving our neighbors. While we may have different ideas about how to fix this broken system and may have different ways of loving our neighbors, our call to love our neighbor is central to our faith.
Being a sanctuary denomination will look different in different contexts. It may mean providing space for people to live; providing financial and legal support to those who are working through the immigration system; or supporting other congregations and service providers. We cannot mandate or direct our congregations and ministries to respond in specific ways. Each must work out what this means for them in their context.
While we don't yet know the full scope of the work that this declaration will open for the church, we do know that our faith communities are already doing sanctuary work. Sanctuary for a congregation may mean hosting English as a second Language (ESL) classes, marching as people of faith against the detention of children and families, providing housing for a community member facing deportation, or, in some of our congregations, having thoughtful conversations about what our faith says about immigration. All of these are a step closer to sanctuary in our faith communities and sanctuary in our world for people who must leave their homes.
Except for our members whose ancestors were here before European settlement or others who were forced to come to the U.S. against their will, the ELCA is an immigrant church. Our decades long work with immigrants and refugee is how we practice our faith in the world. Lutherans started Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S.
At our last assembly, we also committed to walking alongside Central American children and families fleeing their communities by passing the AMMPARO strategy (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities).
Through the AMMPARO strategy, we are also working through our global partners in Central America to alleviate the conditions that cause people to migrate. We support organizations and faith communities that work with deported migrants in Central America and advocate for the humane treatment of immigrants in Mexico. In the U.S., we have a network of 151 welcoming and sanctuary congregations that are committed to working on migration issues and a welcome for immigrant communities. The church also has five sanctuary synods (our regional structures), all of which do work with immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers.
In baptism, we are brought into a covenantal relationship with Jesus Christ that commits us to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. Following the example of Martin Luther, we believe that advocacy is a crucial expression of baptismal identity. As a church, we have advocated for stopping the detention of children and families for decades. We have spoken out against family separation, sought a pathway to citizenship for community members that have lived in the U.S. for many years, and have taken steps to address the root causes of migration in a way that honors the humanity in people who must flee.
Being a sanctuary denomination means that we, as church together, want to be public and vocal about this work. At the same time, we will have conversations about what sanctuary means with many of our members and discern future action and direction. Welcoming people is not a political issue for us, it is a matter of faith.
This following letter is in response to the above information.
Beloved of Christ,
By now you may know that in Churchwide Assembly the ELCA declared itself to be a sanctuary denomination.
I am writing to you all because there is a lot of misinformation out there about what this means, particularly if you get news from Fox, who unfortunately did not portray this in any accurate way.
1. No congregation in the ELCA is being asked, expected, or required to break ANY law. Sanctuary is a call some of our congregations participate in. Most do not. There is no expectation that this will change, and your congregation will not be looked at as "bad" if you do not. I would not support any sort of movement that would obligate any congregation of our synod to break the law, and I supported the memorial to become a sanctuary denomination.
2. If you read the actual memorial itself you will see that what the ELCA committed to is to continue to support the work of Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service (LIRS); to advocate for fair treatment of migrants and refugees; and to work to close the child detention centers and end the practice of separating families from one another.
These are all things Lutherans have been doing for as long as there have been Lutherans. Many congregations have refugee resettlement experiences in their past, many congregations support the work of LIRS (they were warmly welcomed at our Synod Assembly this spring), and I think our church is acting in line with the commands of Jesus when we work to protect children.
The unfortunate piece of this is that we chose to use the word "sanctuary", which is a deeply loaded word in these troubled days. There was spirited debate about not using that designation, but that suggestion was defeated by the Churchwide voting members.
I am taking time after Assembly to be with my girls before school starts, but please feel free to reach out to me or my staff with any questions or concerns you may have. I will respond to any messages when I am back at work next week.
Our Church did good work in Milwaukee. Hard work. Uncomfortable work. Work that will leave us feeling a bit off-kilter for a little while. But Christ doesn't promise us that following him will be comfortable. He does, however, promise to be with us always.
Thanks be to God!
Bishop Kristen Kuempel