The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in August declared itself a “sanctuary denomination.”
The declaration, as of now, hasn’t led to much more than some informal conversations among leadership at Montrose’s Zion Lutheran Church — an ELCA church — about how members of the Montrose body can help immigrants at the United States-Mexico border.
“For us, it’s mean gathering some supplies and sending them down to the border,” said Michael Mortvedt, who is serving as the interim pastor at Zion Lutheran while the church conducts a search for a permanent pastor.
In addition to sending supplies, Mortvedt said, the church has considered starting English as a Second Language programs or classes within the community and possibly conducting one of its church services in Spanish.
Mortvedt recognized such programs wouldn’t necessarily help the immigration situation at the border but explained how the sanctuary declaration can look different for each church congregation.
“This declaration by our national church-wide assembly is not calling on any church or congregation to do something illegal,” Mortvedt said.
The denomination, made up of 3.4 million members and about 9,000 congregations held its annual conference Aug. 7 in Milwaukee, where leadership made the declaration.
At the conference, church leaders marched and held a prayer vigil at a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
The declaration, put simply, means the church will work for immigrants who seek out help. It doesn’t put any kind of mandate on congregations or synods — groups of churches within a region. The declaration is open-ended in that it doesn’t have such mandates. But that also means people from the outside can look at the declaration and draw their own conclusions.
“We hear ‘sanctuary’ and we think of people (seeking refuge) in churches — that old European church idea,” Mortvedt said, referring to the right of asylum, a juridical concept under which someone being persecuted could escape such persecution within the confines of a church — if that church chose to house them.
In recent years, some municipalities have passed policies and ordinances declining to assist the federal government in the deportation of illegal immigrants.
More close to home — and perhaps more closely related to the ELCA’s declaration — is the case of Rosa Sabido, a Mexican national who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years.
She, after facing deportation in June 2017, sought sanctuary within the walls of Mancos United Methodist Church in Mancos, where she has lived for more than two years.
While the ELCA has worked with refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants, no ELCA church congregation has offered sanctuary in the classical sense.
But that wouldn’t necessarily be out of character for the ELCA, according to ELCA Rocky Mountain Synod Bishop James Gonia.
The Rocky Mountain Synod, of which Montrose’s ELCA church is a member, is actually the synod that works the closest with immigrants. Included in the synod are congregations in Colorado, New Mexico and El Paso — the city where the ELCA does most of its work with those crossing the border.
In 2009, the Rocky Mountain Synod’s annual assembly was held in El Paso, a chance for church leadership to “have an up-close and personal look” at the situation at the border, Gonia told the Montrose Daily Press.
Gonia explained that look partially helped guide the declaration by the ELCA.
“I recognize to house someone facing deportation is technically against the law,” Gonia said. “The question is, do we have the right laws?”
He said there are likely congregations in Colorado — on the Front Range — that would consider giving sanctuary to someone facing deportation, but acknowledged he was only theorizing because, as of now, nobody to his knowledge has sought out that sort of protection in Colorado.
“It really isn’t about breaking the law,” Gonia said. “It’s being helpful to the most vulnerable people.”
Mortvedt shares that sentiment.
“We don’t all agree, but most agree that something needs to happen policy-wise,” he said. “We could debate what the policies should be, but really the human need is what is at the forefront of this.”
Peter Severson, the director of the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Colorado, works on behalf of the church. Part of the work means advocating for refugees.
He said his job hasn’t been reshaped since the declaration since the church has been advocating for immigrants pretty much since its inception.
The advocacy office has been around since 1984, working to find solutions to poverty, hunger and immigration issues among others.
“In terms of our advocacy work, we don’t know specifically what kinds of things will come out of the declaration,” he said, adding he does know it means working with “the needs of people arriving at the US-Mexico border” and “figuring out ways to live into this declaration more fully.”
He brought up the Lutheran Family Services of the Rocky Mountains, which was founded in 1948 to help people in need.
A big part of the nonprofit’s work is refugee services, which Severson said shows how long the Lutheran Church has been assisting with refugees, reinforcing the idea that the church’s mission in that regard hasn’t changed much.
“The hope of this church is that we’ll be a church of God’s grace and welcome people that need help,” Severson said.
As the church does live into the declaration more fully, one thing is clear. The ELCA will try to help find solutions.
Mortvedt said, “We don’t all agree on the solution, but I think most of us would agree something has to happen.”
Justin Tubbs is the managing editor of the Montrose Daily Press.