MANKATO — One of the largest groups of Christian churches in the U.S. recently voted to become a sanctuary denomination, prompting local discussions on how to put the declaration into practice.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, made the decision at its churchwide assembly in Milwaukee in early August. The assembly is the Lutheran denomination’s primary decision-making body.
Tim Bowman, associate pastor at Christ the King ELCA church in Mankato, said becoming a sanctuary denomination is about reaffirming the church’s support for immigrants and refugees.
“My understanding is it’s a public declaration that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith for us,” he said.
Following heightened fears about mass deportations after President Donald Trump took office, individual churches across the country labeled themselves “sanctuaries.” The idea was to offer shelter for families at risk of being separated. The Hope Interfaith Center in Mankato was the first area church to declare itself a sanctuary in March 2017.
ELCA’s vote doesn’t mean its 10,000 or so congregations are required to provide shelter. It specifically states it doesn’t call for anyone to engage in any illegal actions, so being a sanctuary congregation could mean hosting English as a second language classes or leading demonstrations against the detention of children and families.
Nikoli Falenschek, associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran ELCA church in St. Peter, said being a sanctuary could mean something different for each congregation but comes down to going beyond words in supporting vulnerable populations.
“At the bare bones of it, we’re committing ourselves to caring for our neighbor,” he said. “ ... Our No. 1 priority is caring for, as Christ called it, the ‘least of these.’”
The ELCA has roughly 4 million members, with local congregations including Mankato’s Christ the King, Bethlehem Lutheran and Grace Lutheran, North Mankato’s Messiah Lutheran, and St. Peter’s Trinity and First Lutheran. Voting members from ELCA’s 65 synods attend the churchwide assembly every three years to deliberate wider church matters.
Falenschek was one of the local voting members in attendance in Milwaukee during the sanctuary vote. He described the proceedings as “overwhelmingly positive” in favor of the declaration, which came after a lengthy and constructive discussion.
After the sanctuary denomination amendment, the assembly also voted to provide resources and staff to help congregations navigate the declaration.
The step goes along with its ongoing strategy approved at the previous assembly to support migrant children and families. Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities, or AMMPARO, includes the ELCA partnering with agencies in Central America to address the conditions pushing people to the U.S.
Comparable economic hardships once pushed Lutherans to the U.S. The ELCA’s explainer on what the sanctuary decision means notes it’s an “immigrant church” that founded Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, one of the major refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S.
“It’s part of our history,” Bowman said of immigration. “It’s part of our story of who we are, and it’s helping us remember part of who we are and that we’ve been there.”