California Forum

Adopt the religious meaning of ‘sanctuary’

Students march on downtown Los Angeles after walking out of class on Nov. 14, demanding for local politicians to declare L.A. County a sanctuary.
Students march on downtown Los Angeles after walking out of class on Nov. 14, demanding for local politicians to declare L.A. County a sanctuary. Los Angeles Times

Immigrant families in Sacramento and around the country are trembling. They worry their families will be broken up, that their homes, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods will be recklessly invaded and that as many as 2 million people in California may be deported.

Some concerned leaders have invoked the term “sanctuary,” seeking to shelter immigrants and their families from harm, but in the end, these are half-measures that raise people’s hopes but do nothing to provide families with a stable legal status.

Three separate presidential administrations have done little to fix a broken immigration system. Through lack of will or lack of foresight, they have made it worse. House Speaker Paul Ryan and the members of Congress should produce a comprehensive immigration reform bill that provides an opportunity for all of us to be good neighbors for one another. The whole congressional delegation from California – Democrats and Republicans – should take the lead. Meanwhile, we should consider what the word “sanctuary” truly means, and work to achieve it for all our people.

Sanctuary is an ancient, religious word, implying more than just protection from undue threats. In the fullest meaning of the word, a sanctuary is a sacred space where one’s conduct is governed by reverence both for the place as well as for all who enter there. To enter a sanctuary is to find peace and dignity that was otherwise lost or deprived.

In the present political predicament, sanctuary has come to mean a buffer from the drastic, unwarranted consequences of enforcement practices that risk the welfare of families and their communities. The charged polemics surrounding “sanctuary” unnecessarily pit a reverence for law against a reverence for people. The mounting stalemate, since the recent outcome of the election, risks undermining both.

Good law provides a humane, wholesome social sanctuary where all are treated with reverence and respect. A limited, reactionary notion of sanctuary may only harden positions, threatening a further erosion of human dignity and the social fabric.

When it convened in December, the California Legislature passed a round of “sanctuary” legislation, but a resolution supporting comprehensive immigration reform passed quietly with little discussion. That is unfortunate. We need a public discussion among elected officials about immigration reform as a reasonable and practical alternative to the prevailing hysteria on the issue. Comprehensive legal immigration reform should be a common, bipartisan effort to restore a sense of true sanctuary for all of us.

Yet, this urgent sanctuary space is needed not only for migrant and refugee families. Schools should be sanctuaries for learning, not pipelines for prisons. The woman’s womb should be a sanctuary where both the mother and child are respected and protected. Too many families are without the sanctuary of good employment, good housing and safe streets.

The sanctuary movement should not be an impulsive reaction to fearful uncertainty. Returning sanctuary to its true religious origins restores a more divine purpose to our common human endeavors for creating a good society. There is a wider, brighter vision if we all step back into a God-given gaze. There is a language that comes from a deep wellspring of religious hope that is deeply embedded in the American social fabric.

The often-told parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example. We should not limit the sanctuary space to just undocumented immigrants and refugees. All neighborhoods and communities need much mending. Many neighbors need another’s charitable minding. In that well-known Gospel story, a teacher of the law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” That question still echoes on many of our streets and tweets. Jesus replied with another question that remains ours to answer, “Who acted as the neighbor?”

Jaime Soto is bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento. He can be contacted at bishopsoto@scd.org.

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