Dear Friends & Colleagues,
A few weeks ago I made my way to New York City for a meeting. As has become my routine, I drove to the White Plains train station to catch my ride. When I pulled into the parking garage, there were plenty of empty spaces The only problem was that each one of them had the same message: “Metered Parking. Permit Only. All others towed.” Six floors of empty spaces and one message: “You can’t park here.”
I didn’t panic because I knew that the seventh floor had an unrestricted section where anyone could park. However, when I arrived on the seventh floor I quickly discovered that all of the unrestricted spaces had been taken. There was no room for me.
After several attempts and a few missed trains, I finally found a spot some distance away from the station. All I wanted to do was catch the train that would take me to the place I wanted to go.
My own minor encounter with exclusion pales in comparison with the recent Executive Orders to close our borders and build walls. It’s one thing to not be able to find a place to park and catch a train. It’s another to apply that circumstance to someone’s family and life. All they want to do is catch the train to a better life, a life filled with hope, healing, and possibilities to become a fuller expression of who they were created to be.
The hope for healing and possibility is at the heart of who we are as a people of faith. In the Old Testament we are told in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that we are to treat the foreigner as our native born, to leave food for them, and to “love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). In the New Testament, Jesus was constantly inviting in the loners, losers, and lost ones of the world and imploring his followers to respond favorably to those around us. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it me,” was his plea (Mattthew 25:40).
When the church was established, they quickly began to use the word “sanctuary” to describe the most sacred part of the religious building. The “sanctuary” was a safe place, a refuge from the storm, a haven for protection from the forces at work around us.
Today we find ourselves immersed in a struggle where our President has declared that there is no room for the foreigner, no place for hope of a greater life, no sanctuary from the storm of life, no opportunity to catch the train to a better life. These decisions are separating families, dismantling communities, and creating a greater division among us that only adds to the discord we feel and the conflict we sense emerging around us.
I believe that we tend to operate most days with a short-term memory. It was not all that long ago that seven brothers immigrated to the United States to find a better life. Four of the brothers settled in Pennsylvania. Three of them to West Virginia. Their names were Bickerton. It was not all that long ago that a man brought his wife and young child through Ellis Island from Syria and began working in a produce warehouse along the Ohio River. His name was Cassis. It was not long ago that a child of the Bickerton family met a child of the Cassis family and fell in love. They married and began to build a life together. They named their first son Tom. I would not be here today had it not been for a place that welcomed the immigrant, provided a place for them to seek employment, and encouraged them to build a life within the bounds of our borders.
My story is not unlike countless numbers of other stories that bear witness to what really made America great. It welcomed those who were struggling to find their way and offered them the hope of a better life.
That’s where we come in. It is time for us to be the church that we profess we are. While we cannot change Executive Orders that oppress and alienate, we in our churches can create an atmosphere of grace and a posture of love that points to a better way.
I would encourage all of you to take to heart the biblical mandate that has been proclaimed in our churches for centuries. I would implore you to take seriously the word “sanctuary” and provide opportunity to make that word come alive in your context. I would ask you to consider what it means to create a story that is far different than the rhetoric we are being exposed to by those who currently have control of the microphone.
Specifically, I would urge you to consider the following:
- Pray, Teach, and Preach
Open the doors of your church to offer constant prayer vigils, provide resources for prayer at the altars of our churches, and have leaders present to pray for those who seek something more. We must create a climate among our people where they are seeking, in prayer, the will of God and the courage that God provides for us to play our part in the redemption of the world.
Explore the scriptures and take leadership to offer words of guidance and hope based on the Word of God. Teach about how we, like Jesus and many others after him, can play a role in bearing witness to grace, hope and love for all of God’s children. Preach about welcoming the stranger, feeding the poor, and including the ones who are left out. Remind your people that we were once foreigners and bridge the gap with the offer to love others as we ourselves have been loved.
- Walk the Streets
It is time for us to take the word transformation more seriously. If we want to transform the world, we must be in the world we hope to transform. If all we do is pray and preach to those who make up our membership, we will have missed the grand opportunity to more intimately know the hungers and hurts of the people around us.
I urge you to walk the streets of your community and discover where the hurts and fears reside. Go to places where you wouldn’t normally go, speak a word that creates a pulpit of grace wherever you may be, ask questions about what the real needs are, and love, simply love, the ones who need a word of hope and healing.
- Consider becoming a “sanctuary”
Our President has signed an Executive Order that will pull funding from cities that are sanctuaries. The church will not do the same. We need to identify, train, and equip churches throughout the New York Annual Conference to become sanctuary churches in the literal sense – places of refuge, protection, and safety. We will strive to do our part in the Annual Conference to resource and equip churches that make this decision. What we need today, however, are churches that are making the decision. There are dangerous storms brewing. Won’t you consider becoming a refuge from the storm?
If your church is willing to play this important role, please contact your District Superintendent and indicate your willingness to be trained and equipped.
This issue is not the only one facing us in these uncertain times. We must not forget about the positions taken and the actions carried out that are creating racial and gender biases which make children of God feel less than they were created to be. Our prayer and our intentional work must center around what it means to be hope to the hopeless, joy to the joyless, and love to those who are made to feel less than God created them to be. We must do this for all of God’s children.
I want to play my part in truly making America great again. It all begins with providing a place to park and an opportunity to catch the train to a better life.
Won’t you join me?
The Journey Continues, . . .
Thomas J. Bickerton