NYAPC — Becoming a Sanctuary Church

On March 21, 2017 we joined hands and in prayer with 60 other Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Unitarian and Humanist congregations (and about 200 people at the the rally) to launch the DMV (District-Maryland-Virginia) Sanctuary Network.    It was a glorious day to celebrate our unity in diversity and our pledge to support the most vulnerable in our community.  Perhaps you are wondering how we got here?  How did we become a Sanctuary Church?  Here is my (Alice’s)  perspective on how we became a sanctuary church, joining his historic and Spirit led movement.  

Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.”  In resistance to the Executive Order banning refugees from the seven majority Muslim countries and discriminating against Muslims, for the last two months those have been the words on our sermon board on both sides of our church.  Until the Executive ban is fully rescinded, until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is no longer directed to raid immigrant homes in our community, and until DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals) candidates no longer live in fear of unfair deportation, that sign will continue to hang prominently in front The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC.  As Christians seeking after God’s justice and because of our physical positioning, just four blocks east of the White House, we feel this deep calling to stand up as a Sanctuary Church.

The Background of Becoming a Sanctuary Church

Last spring Kathy Doan, a ruling elder at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and a long time advocate for the immigrant community, and Maricelly Malave, Co-Founder of Sanctuary DMV (District Maryland Virginia), met with me to share an involving need for churches and communities to join the New Sanctuary Movement.  They shared the history of this ancient practice for temples, churches, and even whole cities to declare themselves as a place of refuge for people accused of crimes in which they feared unfair retribution. They shared that the US churches first used Sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad helping slaves pass to freedom during the Civil War.

In the 1970s, when refugees from the Civil Wars in Central America began to come to the United States seeking shelter, the US government did not recognize them as political refugees seeking asylum.  Many were deported and faced death squads on their return.  In response to this dire situation the Sanctuary Movement was formed.  At its peak, there were over 500 member congregations. In 1986, the Sanctuary Movement won the inclusion of Central America as part of our immigration laws.

Starting the summer of 2014, we started seeing the return of the humanitarian crisis with thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and forced gang participation in Central America seeking safely in the United States. Moreover, eleven million undocumented persons are living in the United States, many who have lived here for more than ten years.  These members of our community — these friends, family members and neighbors are all at the risk of deportation.

In the fall of 2016, Kathy and Maricelly gave an Adult Education class presenting on Sanctuary movement. In October, the Session, the governing board of the church, voted to form a task force to study what it would mean to sign on as a sanctuary church.  Days before the Inauguration of the current President, by a vote of Session, The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church joined in with over 400 churches across the country to make the following public pledge:

As people of faith and people of conscience, we pledge to resist the newly elected administration’s policy proposals to target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants and discriminate against marginalized communities. We will open up our congregations and communities as sanctuary spaces for those targeted by hate, and work alongside our friends, families, and neighbors to ensure the dignity and human rights of all people.

This pledge affirmed the church’s role in the Sanctuary movement consistent with the church’s mission to be an inclusive justice seeking congregation trying to live out Jesus’ command that we welcome the hungry, the naked, the estranged and the outcast.

In signing the pledge, the church committed to hang a immigrants welcome sign out front of the church, to connect the church with those working in the field, to educate ourselves and then advocate for the needs of those seeking sanctuary, and to inform immigration service providers that the church is willing to provide sanctuary.  Due to of all of the details that still needed to be discussed, in January the church did not commit to physically housing individuals or families.

Where We Are At Now

Since January 20, we have seen policies, words, and inaction out of the current administration that deeply hurt immigrants, refugees, and both the Muslim and Jewish communities.  We are hearing immigrant neighbors say that they feel so scared that they are afraid to go to public spaces.  Some are afraid to send their children to school.  We have felt that our Christian faith has been deeply challenged, and that the justice of God is under deep threat and abuse.

In joining the Sanctuary Network a congregation needs to pledge support to one of 4 areas. Short of hosting ourselves, we have committed to the other areas.

  1. Hosting:    Actually taking a member of the community into sanctuary on the church property.   OR/ Supporting another congregation that is hosting a person in sanctuary.
  2. Accompaniment: Going with a member of the community to an ICE check in to be the eyes and ears on the ground as well as offering support and care.
  3. Rapid Response Network:  Being part of a network of people who respond when one of our neighbors’ homes is raided by ICE.
  4. Providing Know Your Rights Presentations for allies or immigrants

More on these 4 specific areas will follow in further articles.

In this New Sanctuary movement, as per the pledge, we have committed to stand along side all people who are under threat and vulnerable. These communities include the Black Lives Matter Movement, the Muslim community, the Jewish community, the LGBTQI community, and women.  Everyday we are seeking to see how we best live into this pledge.

Here is how we believe we have been in action thus far:

On the steps in front of the sanctuary days before the Executive Order (EO) was put in place, we hosted a press conference put together by Church World Service, The Presbyterian Office in Washington and Faith in the Public life — standing up against the then proposed EO barring refugees and discriminating against Muslims.  The words from Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the new Director of the Presbyterian Office in Washington resonated with me: “Now is the time for the faith community to stand up for immigrants and refugees.  Now is the time to stand up for our common humanity.”


Since then, we have created petition asking Presbyterian members of Congress to stand for their faith and against the EO.  We sent in the petition with over 1,100 signatures from our congregation and from churches across the country.

Our church has joined in the “No Muslim Ban” protests against the Executive Order. We have gathered in front of the White House, at the steps of the Capital and at the Washington Monument protesting the current administration’s policies against immigrants and refugees.  We from age two to eighty have gathered after church walked the just four blocks over to the White House to add our voices to the many in protest.


We have shared the Session’s decisions with the congregation in worship and in our weekly newsletter.  The Sanctuary Taskforce has continued to gather and attend city wide meetings at All Souls Unitarian on how we can best live into our commitment and support both the immigrant community and places of faith. At those city wide meetings, members have began to train in Rapid Response Network training and Accompaniment training.  Kathy Doan has provided a workshop at the National Capital Presbytery Open Space to engage other Presbyterian churches in this network.

Additionally, we have begun to train the church staff  on how to respond if someone seeking sanctuary comes to our door.  Already we have visitors from Iran and Mexico wanting to learn more about our work as a Sanctuary church.

Looking to the future where there may be some very real need to take a long standing member of our local community into sanctuary, we have begun the planning of the necessary details:  where the person would sleep, shower and eat. We have also planned for legal representation for the church.  All of this planning takes a lot of time!

We continue to learn and discern where we are called and how we live into our new identity as a Sanctuary Church. We know it will not be easy and there is risk involved. But from the short time of becoming a Sanctuary Church, we have witnessed new well-springs of activism and engaged faith in our congregation. We hope that you join us in this calling too, and that as sisters and brothers united in one faith, one baptism, and one Lord, we may together to live into our shared faith where all are held up as beloved children of God.

For more information and for sources for this article, please visit:





Alice Tewell

For more information email alice.tewell@nyapc.org
















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