By Associate General Counsel Jennifer Hawks

My mother’s family hails from rural Arkansas. For decades we had a family reunion every Easter weekend where my family and those of my grandfather’s 21 brothers, sisters and half-siblings would return to the family farm to play games, crack jokes and enjoy an old-fashioned potluck. Despite the many differences in hometowns, able-bodiedness and personalities, we were united by our family ties. 

These family reunions remind me of a fundamental aspect of the Church. Despite differences within the Church, we are united by our spiritual kinship. The Apostle Paul’s famous recitation of unity in Galatians 3:28 begins with “There is neither Jew nor Gentile … .” Thus, from the earliest days of Christianity, people who could have been divided by national origin, ethnic or racial distinctions were instead grafted into one family tree. In our nation of immigrants, numerous American congregations continue to emphasize this aspect of biblical teaching.

Many of our immigrant brothers and sisters today are experiencing a heightened sense of vulnerability. Despite the broken immigration system, faith-based organizations are doing important work in the immigrant community, including with undocumented immigrants. Many churches are also engaged in this ministry and are discerning how they should minister to their congregants and neighbors who may be at risk of deportation. They recognize that a religious conviction to provide sanctuary as part of their religious exercise may run afoul of federal immigration law and related state or local laws. Some congregations are choosing different ways besides sanctuary to minister to undocumented immigrants and their families.

“Sanctuary” literally means “refuge.” Throughout human history, there have been communities willing to provide sanctuary, or physical refuge, to people who were in violation of the law. The Bible records that in setting up the Kingdom of Israel, certain cities were designated as sanctuary cities with specified rules for claiming sanctuary. Perhaps the two most famous historical examples of people providing sanctuary for their neighbors are the American households who sheltered runaway slaves during the Underground Railroad and the European families who safeguarded Jews during the Holocaust.

The modern-day American sanctuary movement began in 1982 when six congregations in California and Arizona offered to protect undocumented Central American immigrants who were fleeing their war-torn countries. Providing shelter, material support and advocacy, hundreds of congregations quickly joined them in what is now known as the “Sanctuary Movement.” When President Barack Obama increased deportations, this movement saw a resurgence as the “New Sanctuary Movement,” and it continues to attract new congregations from across the country and religious spectrum.

Recently, we have received some inquiries from churches about this movement as they evaluate whether or not to participate, including how free exercise of religion concerns may be weighed against the federal immigration law. “Sanctuary” is not a legal term and provides no legal protection for the institution. A “sanctuary church” intentionally ministers to the undocumented community, which may include providing physical shelter for those facing detention or deportation. If a congregation determines that providing sanctuary is consistent with its theology and ministry, there are numerous practical and legal issues to consider. For an introduction to the basic questions, visit our new resource page at

If your church is considering becoming a sanctuary church, here are four basic guidelines to keep in mind:
1) Consult a local attorney familiar with federal immigration law and related state and local laws. These laws vary by jurisdiction and may penalize additional activities related to providing care for undocumented persons.

2) Learn what services are needed in your community by reaching out to other community groups.

3) If providing shelter, inform the undocumented immigrant that staying at the church does not give any special legal protection against detention or deportation.

4) Ensure that any staff, church members or other volunteers involved in sheltering or transporting undocumented immigrants are properly trained and aware of the potential legal consequences.

Immigrants, regardless of legal status, are undoubtedly part of American churches. Their full engagement in the life of congregations enriches churches while offering an opportunity for others to spiritually and emotionally support them in difficult times. How individual churches respond to these vulnerable brothers and sisters will differ from congregation to congregation, but all members of our spiritual family have a place at the table.

From the May/June 2017 edition of Report from the CapitalYou can also read the digital version of the magazine or view it as a PDF.