It was a strange 4th of July this year at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin,TX.
We at the church found out last week that Hilda, the Guatemalan woman staying in sanctuary at our church with her son Iván, has been fined $300,000 by ICE. The letter seems to say if Hilda can’t pay the fine, the government can come after the church. These letters showed up across our nation last week.
Surely, the Trump administration understands poor refugees cannot afford such fines. Perhaps they are trying to frighten communities of faith away from supporting the undocumented members of our human family.
The Sanctuary movement consists of many faiths, and many people of good will, but the letters seem to be going to Christian churches, so here is something the Trump administration and his supporters need to know about the faith communities he is targeting.
We are Sanctuary Churches.
We are not like your televangelical friends who participate in injustices committed against the weak so they might dine with the strong. We were born out of the prophetic Judaism of Moses who said to tyranny on behalf of the immigrant population of his own day, “Let my people go!”
Our crosses are not self-congratulatory labels, but reminders of one who would not bow before empire and chose death with humanity over life with viciousness.
When I heard the news about Hilda’s fine, I broke my writing leave to see how she is doing. Hilda meekly smiled and said, “I’m not feeling sad, I’m feeling brave.” She raised her arms as if to show her muscles. Such is the courage of this refugee mother.
Last week our nation celebrated two different ideas of America. For some, the 4th of July was a celebration of military might and splendor. In sanctuary churches, our America is an unrealized vision of justice for all people. It is not the America criticized by Frederick Douglas on the same day in 1851 while White Americans prepared to celebrate their freedom, even as they enslaved others:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to (the enslaved), more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which (the enslaved) is the constant victim. To (the enslaved) your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery.”
The America we celebrated on that day has yet to be realized. It is the imperfect, but illuminating, vision of people like Thomas Paine:
“When it can be said by any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am the friend of happiness. When these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and government. Independence is my happiness, the world is my country and my religion is to do good.”
As you celebratied America as a military empire, we celebrated America as a hope for universal human rights. We did not celebrate the corporate monster that destroyed the stability of Hilda’s homeland and then put her and her son in a private prison and now threatens her with impossible fines. No, we celebrated the America Hilda thought she would find when she got here. The America described on the Statue of Liberty as, “Mother of Exiles.”
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
For us, human rights are a matter of faith. We believe we are called to speak truth to power. It was the prophet and martyr Rev. Dr. King who said:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed; We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all (human beings) are created equal.”
And another prophet and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said to the Christians in his own unjust nation who did not consider anti-Semitism to be a disqualification for their newly elected charismatic leader:
“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear … Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now.”
Ours is not the Christianity of the inquisitors and crusaders. We are descendants of those who suffered for saying “no” to Pharaoh, and then suffered for saying “no” to Caesar, and who now stand ready to suffer for saying “no” to the American Caesar.