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Sanctuary is one of those evocative words imbued with layers of meaning and textured by a collage of images:
- Contemporary worship spaces with a homey feel and an adjacent church café
- Cavernous basilicas that usher one into silence and elicit solemn prayer
- Holy spaces disguised by the mundane so that the persecuted or terrorized might gather to worship together
Sanctuaries provide refuge, shelter, and safe haven from the troubles in our hearts and lives. Here the religious and political mix, or perhaps more accurately their inevitable mixture shines forth. For centuries of English law, churches provided sanctuary for those accused of crimes, regardless of their guilt or innocence. Flight to a church building meant flight to safety, at least in theory.
Protected inside these human-made sanctuaries, we are reminded of the One in whom ultimate safety resides. The Psalmist’s cry becomes ours:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
But not always.
Not in Charleston, SC.
Not in Emanuel AME Zion Church, where last night nine worshippers, including the pastor who is also a state senator, were gunned down in an apparent racially motivated hate crime. This historic black congregation knows all too well that sanctuary may be overrun by destructive forces seeking to return creation—God’s children specifically—to nothing. As a Washington Post article summarizes, “It was founded by worshippers fleeing racism and burned to the ground for its connection to a thwarted slave revolt. For years, its meetings were conducted in secret to evade laws that banned all-black services. It was jolted by an earthquake in 1886. Civil rights luminaries spoke from its pulpit and led marches from its steps. For nearly 200 years it has been the site of struggle, resistance, and change.”
Cries in the media such as, “Are churches no longer safe?” emerge from ignorance of the history of this congregation and others like it. For sanctuary is undone over and over again in a racist society. When a black man feels safe walking the streets of Dubai, Toyko, and Paris at night but fearfully strolls the streets of Holland, MI (as one of my friends shared), then sanctuary is absent. In medieval England, the law provided sanctuary (quite literally) for those accused of criminal behavior. In postmodern United States, persons of color (especially black men) face harassment, discrimination, economic exploitation, threats, intimidation, and violence regularly, plus rampant denial of the racist structures that sustain all this.
Today is a day to lament the loss of sanctuary.
Today is a day to commit to its restoration.
Today is a day to dismantle racism in our places of work and worship, in our neighborhoods, schools, and communities until the eschatological promises of God are realized for all:
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.