Signs of the Time: The Good Samaritan and the Good News of Sanctuary

by Scott Wright, Director

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:33 – 34

In the first few weeks since the inauguration of a new president, the new administration has issued Executive Orders to build a wall on the U.S. – Mexico border, to bar refugees from Syria and other Muslim countries from entering the United States, and to cut off federal funding to Sanctuary Cities who seek to support immigrants and refugees, rather than to deport them. A nation of immigrants, and the children and grandchildren of immigrants, anxiously awaits to see whether the President of the United States will take even more drastic actions to deport millions of undocumented refugees and to require Muslims to sign a federal registry.

In response, numerous Jewish and Christian organizations, including Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have all decried the ban on refugees as contrary to their faith, and contrary to cherished values of welcome and compassion for immigrants and refugees.

Today, the world is facing a global migration crisis not seen since the end of the Second World War, with more than 65 million people displaced by war and persecution. After six years, the war in Syria has displaced half the Syrian population, with 4.8 million refugees and 6.6 million people displaced from their homes within Syria.

While traditionally generous in its support for refugees, even with a rigorous and time-consuming vetting process, the United States has now shut its doors to refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations under the new Executive Order. In addition to those who are barred from entry to the United States, another 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States are under increasing threat of deportation.

A Light Shines in the Darkness

 “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” – Matthew 25:35 – 36

Despite these challenges, there are lights in the darkness. Since the November 2016 election, at least 39 major cities, 633 counties, and numerous Catholic colleges and universities, including 27 Jesuit institutions, have publicly pledged their support for undocumented immigrants, using every legal means to protect them. In addition, a number of Christian and Jewish leaders have vowed to sign a Muslim Registry, if one is instituted by the new administration to monitor Muslims, to show their solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters.

Another light in the darkness is Pope Francis. He continues to lift up the plight of migrants and refugees, and to encourage churches across globe to open their doors to refugees. He even invited a Syrian refugee family to take up residence at the Vatican. More recently, the Catholic bishops on both sides of the Texas – Mexico border have responded to the immigration raids and deportations with a statement of concern and solidarity:

“In this difficult moment in our history, we hear the cry of our migrant brothers and sisters whose voices reflect the voice of Christ Himself. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, as immigrants and refugees, sought for a place to live and work, hoping for a compassionate human response. Today this history repeats itself … We will continue to support and bless the well-known lay organizations that offer wholehearted support to migrants. We applaud the many families in Mexico and the USA that open their hearts and their homes to migrants on their journey.”

The Biblical Witness of Sanctuary

Christian churches have always been places of refuge, and Columbans have a long history of caring for migrants and refugees as part of our missionary identity. St. Columban, patron saint and founder of many monasteries in Europe, was an early practitioner of that tradition. On December 12, 2016, the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, TX and the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach in Washington DC publicly issued a statement of support for sanctuary:

As missionary disciples of Jesus Christ, the Missionary Society of St. Columban is committed to welcoming and providing sanctuary for migrants and refugees, especially in the face of the increasing deportations of immigrants and refugees fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States, and the growing problem of their inhumane treatment in detention centers.”

Sanctuary is not simply a building, but rather a relationship with those who are vulnerable. Sanctuary is the very identity of what it means to be a welcoming community, and for Christians, solidarity is at the heart of what we share as a Eucharistic community. We are called to communion, especially with those who are poor and persecuted. Many years ago, Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit theologian from El Salvador, emphasized the “good news” aspect of sanctuary in an address to sanctuary congregations. Today, that “good news” is still ours to embrace:

You began by opening your arms to refugees who came here poor, frightened and defenseless; you aided them in the manner of the Good Samaritan. But you quickly came to see that you weren’t just helping; you were also being helped. In giving, you were receiving; you bore the sufferings and problems of the refugees and they bore yours. In this way a movement of solidarity has grown, so that the refugees are now, for you, the recipients of help they urgently need, but also bearers of Good News for you.

Sanctuary is not a building. It is a response rooted in faith and nurtured by prayer and hospitality. It is central to who we are as Christians: a sanctuary for the stranger, the migrant and refugee, bound together by a common faith and a common practice of solidarity. It’s a matter of religious identity, and therefore also a matter of religious freedom. And if we are faithful to this witness of welcome and embrace of our neighbor, the migrant and the refugee, if we truly are a community of solidarity and welcome, then we are, like the Good Samaritan, standing on Holy Ground.

Adapted from “Standing on Holy Ground: Responding to the Call for Sanctuary,” published by the Education for Justice Program of the Center of Concern. For the complete reflection, visit www.educationforjustice.org.