At the beginning of last month, we completed our yearlong discernment to become a sanctuary congregation. I could not be more thrilled to have been a part of it during my internship. We made a choice to live into our values in one of the most exacting of forms, and we did it in a way that was energizing and – dare I say – fun! It was also a constant learning process for me, however, and the lessons were occasionally hard ones.
In my case, I first started thinking about sanctuary last April, mostly because I was wrestling with my own conscience. In the face of the refugee crisis and the incredible ugliness of our politics the last two years, I kept thinking, have I done enough? The question of how I would relate to a person who actually went into sanctuary was secondary, if I thought about it at all. Guilt is one of the more self-centered emotions.
This train of thought was derailed for me, however, by an “Expanding Sanctuary” conference I attended in Philadelphia, hosted by Mijente. We heard from some of the grassroots groups leading the immigrant rights struggle, and it was immediately evident that the state of my soul was not the main thing on their mind. They also had some mixed feedback about the manner in which churches had been stepping up to offer sanctuary after the election. Many felt that it was detracting from the leadership of people like themselves, who had been in this fight since before Trump was even a gleam in the eye of the network executives. Others felt that sanctuary churches were elevating their own sacrifice while downplaying the courage of the people actually entering sanctuary.
Uh oh, I thought – and I was supposed to know better too! Back when we first started exploring the concept of sanctuary, most of the materials we consulted emphasized that the congregation must “follow the leadership of the person in sanctuary.” I accepted this instruction, but in something of the uncomprehending spirit of a “Find-and-Replace” function. I’d go through things I’d written previously about sanctuary, and anyplace I had written “protect,” or “rescue,” in the past, I’d take that out and fill in the words “stand in solidarity with” instead.
It wasn’t until the Philadelphia conference that I began to understand why this was more than a matter of semantics. I was reminded that people don’t enter sanctuary in order to advance their own immigration case– there are often less dangerous ways to do that – they do so as an act of civil disobedience, an effort to change unjust laws and to touch the conscience of this nation. I’d been aware of the fact that the church was engaged in an act of resistance – but I’d forgotten the person who was making the greatest act of resistance of all. In short, I’d fallen into that “white saviorism” trap people so often warn against. I’d heard tell of this pitfall before, but I guess I’d assumed it was something that only happens to other people.
It was a bit wounding to my pride to realize that I was not about to be feted as a hero by the other conference attendees. But I also came to find it freeing. It rejuvenated me in the sanctuary effort. Suddenly, there was no longer this idea in my head that we were undertaking to “provide for” someone as a passive recipient of aid – we would be offering our capacity as a congregation to support an autonomous and self-determined person in their struggle to change an unjust system. This was at once more respectful of the other person and more achievable for the congregation. Sanctuary became more real and more possible.
I began to appreciate anew the old insight that all of us, not just some, are liberated by relating to one another as free agents. This is of course one of the insights of our UU heritage, but I often forget it. Human beings are meant to face one another as equals, and when they do not – because they inhabit a society like ours that is full of artificial inequalities – then both sides feel the unnaturalness of the situation. The person dispensing “help” may be momentarily self-congratulatory, but eventually the resentment kicks in and they start to complain about “freeloaders.” On the reverse side, to quote Saul Alinsky: “someone who asks for help and gets it reacts not only with gratitude but with a subconscious hostility toward the one who helped him. [… H]e feels that the one who helped him is always aware that if it hadn't been for his help, he would still be […] defeated[.]”
No one is genuinely free when they are giving and receiving charity. This is why the egalitarian migrant workers’ camp described in The Grapes of Wrath has such strict rules on the subject. As one of the characters says, “"If a body's ever took charity, it makes a burn that don't come out. [.... W]e don't allow nobody in this camp to build theirself up that-a-way. We don't allow nobody to give nothing to another person. They can give it to the camp and the camp can pass it out.”
As a minister, I will try to do a better job of not building myself up that-a-way. I will try to remember that none of us needs a savior, though we do often need a friend. This is one of the great insights that UUism has to offer the world, even though we as UUs so often muddle it. We are unduly hard on our leaders because we simultaneously expect them to fix our problems and resent them if they try. But people aren’t meant to fix one another. We’re not busted radios. We are called to do something much harder and more rewarding than that: to participate in collective efforts with other people where no one controls or is controlled, but in which we have somehow got to shape a collective destiny together. That's not easy to do. It's called democracy. But it’s the only way to live as human beings are supposed to live.