The Nature and Relevance of ‘Sanctuary’

Volume 50, Issue 1 :: Richard S. Vosko, Hon. AIA

A recent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter,” focused on the tens of thousands of children, women, and men worldwide who, right now, are traveling precariously by land and sea searching for asylum and shelter. The show (images from which are shown on these two pages) described how artists and architects create temporary housing in settlement camps and elsewhere to accommodate these desperate and frightened wanderers.

Installation view of Insecurities

Installation view of Insecurities. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1, 2016 – January 22, 2017. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

There are about 11 million undocumented persons who live in the US and who are subject to deportation. Immigrants are those who leave their homeland to seek legal residency in another country. Refugees are those who leave their country because their lives are in danger; they seek asylum in another country, a process that can take years to complete.

The crisis surrounding people who live in limbo is exacerbated as nation states, in response to populist phobias, develop more nationalistic ideologies. Governments begin to establish laws to reduce the number of refugees entering the country and to block anyone coming from countries where terrorist cells are active. They also seek to deport anyone without proper documentation.

This issue of Faith & Form features stories and spaces that are physically safe in a period of history when more and more people are seeking refuge or require secure havens from racist or xenophobic hate crimes, or from religious discrimination such as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Faith-based communities have traditionally responded to the urgent need to provide safe shelter for people living in danger, who are seeking asylum, and who dream of a chance to start a new life in a new country. These congregations are joined by other institutions and municipalities in offering sanctuary. Here is a brief but incomplete glimpse of some of these “sanctuary” movements.

Better Shelter prototype

Interior of a Better Shelter prototype in Kawergosk Refugee Camp, Erbil, Iraq.
Better Shelter. 2015.

Faith-Based Groups

The Church World Service (CWS) was founded in 1946 as a cooperative of Christian denominations. With offices located throughout the US, CWS offers legal services to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. The Rev. Noel Andersen, coordinator of CWS, writes that, “Sanctuary is powerful because it shows how people live out their faith by accompanying the most marginalized among us.”

According to Spero News, the Clifton Mosque in Cincinnati has declared itself a “sanctuary” to shelter illegal aliens from arrest and deportation. Imam Ismaeel Chartier told Yahoo News: “It took us no time to decide that this was the ethical and moral thing to do.”

Sanctuary Campuses

Ever since the November 2016 elections in the US many universities and colleges have declared themselves as “sanctuary campuses.” They have set various levels of regulations prohibiting campus security agents from cooperating with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) introduced a bill entitled the “Federal Immigration Law Compliance Act of 2016,” which would prohibit federal funding to any institution that does not cooperate with authorities requesting information or detainment of a person without documentation. Just how many state legislations will vote for and enforce this bill, or more recent ones, remains to be seen. Although there are no official statistics, the number of sanctuary campuses appears to be growing.

Sandbag Shelter

Sandbag Shelter. Nader Khalili, 1995.
Courtesy of the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture.

Sanctuary Cities and Counties

In defiance of the federal laws, civic communities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York have already declared themselves safe havens for immigrants. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) has published “Local Options for Protecting Immigrants” — a collection of city and county strategies to protect immigrants from discrimination and deportation. The ILRC promotes sanctuary policies that “can make it clear that city agencies and departments, including local police, should not solicit information about immigration status.”

Even though threatened by a loss of federal financial assistance, mayors of large and small cities are standing pat. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said that undocumented immigrants are safe in Chicago, that Chicago always will be a sanctuary city. New York State’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has issued legal guidelines on how local governments can put laws in place to limit participation in federal immigration enforcement activities. Mayor Kathy Sheehan of Albany, New York commented: “We are committed to being a sanctuary city, and these guidelines will assist in our effort to protect immigrants’ rights and develop relationships that enhance public safety in our city.”

Defiant Congregations

Some states themselves have opposed the sanctuary movement. In 2010 the governor of Arizona signed into law the controversial immigration law S.B. 1070, which has been challenged by the US Department of Justice. It added penalties for trespassing as well as harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. These circumstances, however, have not deterred churches and synagogues from opening their doors to children and families migrating from Mexico and Central America.

Two notable congregations in that state are the Shadow Rock United Church of Christ (in Phoenix) and the Southside Presbyterian Church (in Tucson). Alison Harrington, the pastor of Southside, noted in an interview with Arizona’s KTAR News that about 450 churches of various denominations nationwide have offered to provide some form of sanctuary, including living space, financial assistance, or rides for schoolchildren.

Nizip II, Container Camp

Nizip II, Container Camp. Tobias Hutzler, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alternative Movements

Other advocacies have emerged to provide transitional living arrangements for homeless families. In Upstate New York, several communities are participating in a project known as Family Promise of the Capital Region. It is a consortium of diverse faith groups (Jewish and Christian) working with social agencies to provide shelter, food, and case management services. According to director Mary Giordano, staff and volunteers assist homeless families in securing employment, permanent housing and lasting independence.

People are suffering worldwide as they flee oppression and seek safety and shelter. Others fear for their lives because of their race or religion. In response, there has been a groundswell of congregations, clergy, and faith communities showing the way for secular institutions to provide sanctuary.

The author is a sacred space consultant and a member of the Faith & Form editorial advisory group. He is a Catholic priest serving the St. Vincent de Paul parish in Albany, New York, which participates in Family Promise of the Capital Region.