January 22: Being Sanctuary

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters who broke the story of Watergate which began the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, would never cover the Hillsborough Town Council. As a cub reporter, I know this. The meetings are, in a word, dull. I cannot remember a single story I wrote from the months of sitting in the court chambers where they met and yet I do remember the alchemy of policy and law-making taking place on the other side of the rails is transfixing. On one particular dark night as I drive my 1974 Volkswagen 412 out of the lightless parking lot after an endless meeting where raw power was used in a particularly unpleasant way, I thought to myself, “Maybe I want to have a different view of this.”

A couple years later I am working on education and economic development public policies mostly in the poorest rural areas of our nation. I walk through schools mostly black with raw sewage flowing onto their playgrounds and listen to workers and poultry factories talk about how their hands were crippled from the repetitive motion of beheading chickens and their feet numbed from standing in pools of blood. I listen to tobacco farmers brag about how they could now, thanks to NAFTA, find a lucrative market in Africa and South America for the products people in the US would no longer buy because they knew they were bad for their health.

I listen to people talk about what law was in small towns where the few big landowner do lip service to the letter while spitting in the face of the spirit of the law.


I join my first UU church. I learn through that about anti-racism work, about bias and about how it undermines our democracy and how changing laws does not change attitudes. I think to myself, “Maybe I want to see this from a different point of view.” I take a theology class.


In his last speech, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the view from the mountaintop. That large view, that giraffe view, that mountain top view was no doubt the reason his was a non-violent approach when he defied authorities and broke laws. Though he worked to change laws and policies, he was neither a legislator nor a politician. He was a religious leader and understood the idea that sometimes we need a holy place of shelter when human law has not yet caught up with our larger view of who matters and how we all should be treated. He knew that we all had times when we need shelter, help, a place that feels safer than the rest.


Sanctuary is a religious concept which has been embodied in the Underground Railroad work of the Quakers, the Nazi-era rescue of Jewish children by many including Unitarians Waitstill and Martha Sharp, the sheltering of immigrants from Central America during the 1980s. Historically it has meant that religious places sometimes offer space within their walls. In its broadest sense, though, sanctuary is not a place at all. It is a way of being that says that we extend that zone of protection around the family of humanity as best we can. It is a pledge to move together. It is companionship and accompaniment of the deepest kind.


This is the sense in which I believe we are now called to be sanctuary for one another. To salve hearts broken by seeing that while we have changed laws, we have not tamed the jackal hearts of fear and division. Sanctuary which means we give ourselves permission to cry and curse and mourn together and also to laugh and dance and create art. All of this to sustain us on the path of moving towards that vision of humanity which we hold here which says that people have worth and dignity even when they fall short, even when WE fall short.


Sharon Welch says this: “The ethic of risk is characterized by three elements, each of which is essential to maintain resistance in the face of overwhelming odds: a redefinition of responsible action, grounding in community, and strategic risk-taking.” This is a time when that ethic of risk, of walking into the unknown. For many this happened yesterday, going to their first demonstration.


I have thought and studied this and I believe that our Universalist heritage in particular requires us to live into being sanctuary. That tradition believes that we are bound to do nothing less than create Heaven on this Earth. We are compelled towards that mountaintop view of religion which bids us to truths so large we haven’t stumbled quite towards a way to make them real. Truths larger than the fears within our hearts, the fears within our neighbors’ hearts and larger sometimes even than the laws which are our best attempts to create order among us.


Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors in this nation were pretty much like the majority in our congregations today. Given a choice, they would rather not interrupt or offend their neighbors. And yet our religious tradition requires that we touch that place beyond the hard realities of this world. Rev. Theodore Parker preached with a gun in the pulpit because the Fugitive Slave Act was law and he knew who was living in his church. A reluctant radical, he did not want to do anything controversial or illegal and yet at some point he felt called by his Unitarian religion to say that sometimes human law is not full in its grasp of basic humanity.


Counting a person of African descent is three-quarters of a person and as property was law. The Chinese Exclusion Act which denied immigrants from China a path to citizenship was law. Restricting women’s rights to manage their own bodies was law. Executive Order 9022 which forced internship on Japanese Americans including my family was done within legal limits and as a defensible act was law. Sodomy laws marred many states’ books. Stop and frisk has been ruled to be constitutional. Racial profiling of Muslim people is now law. Somehow it is legal in this nation to have allow the imprisonment of people to be a profit-making enterprise, and one which finds it especially lucrative to trade in immigrants desperate to be able to survive. Sometimes when we take that higher view, we can see we need to be sanctuary. Despite our love and commitment to democracy, sometimes we have to name that that sometimes our fears and our biases overwhelm the potential of that democracy and in those times we must be willing to stand we must be willing to be sanctuary for one another.


As people of faith, we are bound to higher aspirations. “Not only must we know the arguments on all sides of any debate, we must also seriously consider the questions that are not being asked and their implications for everyone involved,” writes Rev. William Barber, the leader of the Moral Monday movement whose book, The Third Reconstruction, is on sale in our hall today because we are reading it as the UUA Common Read this year. Barber and others are saying that there are times when we need to walk into the unknown, times when we must be what we know the laws do not respect the humanity of people.


The words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.” Sanctuary means listening across our differences.


Truth is some of us have long needed sanctuary. Yesterday millions of people moving and marching reminded us of that and yet unless we are willing to translate that into ongoing actions, the moving and resisting will stop. As human beings, we have the ability to comprehend ways of being that we don’t quite know how to embody. Many who have been speaking out and moving out for years are waiting to see: can we continue to move and can we move together?


Listening to someone in this place who spent their rest of the week with people who celebrate a return to a narrower view of who matters is being sanctuary. Being willing to hear why someone is genuinely scared about their safety in our nation is being sanctuary. Singing and dancing and making art together in this space is being sanctuary. Taking Beloved Conversations here this weekend or helping to host it this weekend is part of being sanctuary. Becoming an usher or a greeter to make sure those coming in our doors now will feel especially welcome in this hostile time is being sanctuary. Teaching our kids so they know there is an alternative view of kinship and community is being sanctuary. Hosting Winter Nights which we take a collection for today is an act of sanctuary. Going with someone to their disability hearing or the hearing to have the gender they know affirmed by law is being sanctuary. Being willing to have a conversation about how we can shelter people, including the young adults who have no legal standing and yet remember no other home who are now on federal lists is being sanctuary.


To be that sanctuary in every sense of the word plays for the heart place where we affirm people in their wholeness. Place where we struggle against ourselves to learn how to live on the side of love. Where we confront those internal biases which we aren’t even aware of and yet which still hold us back. A place where we interrupt discrimination and bias whether we find it out in the world in our highest leadership or in our own hearts. Place where we stay in for the Long Haul laughing and loving together for that is what we must do. This is what it means to be sanctuary and this is what is needed it’s different in this week than last.


Let us be the place of heart where we strive to offer the sanctuary of presence. Let’s operate nonviolently and in unity with others who want a different view of humanity. Remember that acting allows us to resist despair. Interrupt hate. Let’s risk the messiness of living on the side of Love. Let us commit to this not just for one day rather as a daily discipline. And let us do so knowing that this is our religious heritage that we are tied to this by our concept of what it means to live in truth. May we remind one another of that broader view.


May we be sanctuary.

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