previously published in Catholic New Times
There are many challenges in the world: war, economic injustices, environmental pollution, oppressive regimes and natural disasters fill the news. From these realities come refugees, people seeking safety and security. From the Lakota Sioux in the 19th century to those from Southern Sudan and Roma from Eastern Europe in current times, throughout Canadian history people have tried to find a haven in Canada. Many succeeded; others were, and are, turned away to return to places of danger.
As people of faith, we are called to care for one another. In the broader faith tradition I am a part of, it is the experience of the refugee, of the sojourner, that underlies much of our understanding of justice and the working out of divine will within creation.
Two Scripture passages make this point in different ways. In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the Ten Commandments include one of the first worker rights passages, one that includes a shared history of oppression, being refugees and liberation.
“Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
In Matthew is the reminder that it is not prayer or baptism that is essential for salvation, but rather active and physical compassion:
“Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:41-45)
These passages are a reminder of a shared communal history of oppression. As a nation of immigrants and refugees, our family histories often include stories of hunger and loneliness, fear, isolation and hope. These passages, as well, are calls for personal responsibility in the present to address the needs of those around us.
We know that there are people taking this calling seriously. There are organizations, such as Kairos, Citizens for Public Justice and the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Coalition, who seek to change laws and practices to ensure that those seeking safety in Canada can do so. From access to municipal services to a call for a fair refugee appeals process, there is ongoing, essential work making our society as a whole a welcoming one.
In a different way, congregations across the country have opened their doors to provide sanctuary for those at risk of being deported. This direct action is not without controversy, but it is something essential to be able to offer. It is a statement of hope, that those in need are individuals we care for and welcome just as others have been welcomed throughout history.
We need to have both foci: if the laws are unjust, they must be changed. Yet, if someone is in need now, we cannot wait until later. Just as we need food banks and shelters until there is a social order that ensures all can live in comfort and dignity, we need to have places where those who are at risk of deportation can go for safety.
Being a sanctuary church, or supporting such efforts, is a variant of the Out of the Cold or the neighbourhood food bank: it is an effort to meet the need in the here and now of someone who is, like all of us, a cherished part of creation, someone in need.
This lived-out practical justice can be considered an act of worship, of seeking to be in the presence of God, of trying to be in a right relationship with the will of the creator. We are reminded in Isaiah 58:6-7a that we can choose the spiritual discipline of justice: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.”
Like all relationships, like all expressions of love, offering sanctuary must be freely chosen. Throughout our history, it is a gift that people of many faiths have offered to the world. What I wish to encourage is openness to being a place of hope in a world that is both full of need and full of possibilities.