Congregational Witness Leads to Denominational Action

First English Lutheran Church sanctuary. Source: Living Lutheran

In June 2018, the U.S. government’s crackdown on undocumented workers left Miriam Vargas in an uncomfortable place. Vargas, a native of Honduras, had been living in the United States for several years with daughters (both U.S. citizens) – ages 3 and 9.

Vargas initially came to the United States in 2006 on a 6-month visa. Despite checking in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials every six months, she was devastated when she received an ICE deportation order that threatened to separate her from her family. Feeling as if her options were running out, Vargas sought sanctuary.

Working with a local immigration rights advocate Rubén Herrera, Vargas was granted sanctuary at First English Lutheran Church.

Upon learning about Vargas’ situation, Sally Padgett, the pastor of First English, said, “She’s a mother, and she has two beautiful girls, and all she was trying to do was raise her girls in this country. One has severe special needs, and the trauma that would be involved in losing their mother at such critical ages would be significant.”

What Vargas thought would be a few weeks turned into 31 months.

She said, “I couldn’t go with my girls to the park, a doctor’s appointment or a school event or a birthday party. It was hard because I knew I couldn’t leave the sanctuary.”

Because immigrants in sanctuary are unable to leave the church building, Padgett noted it is imperative that congregations know what they are getting into and are equipped to accommodate families.

“You have to have showers available, a kitchen and all that stuff,” she said. “[Vargas and her family] started living in one of the educational rooms in the church, but after the first year we realized that was too small, so we moved out of our offices, which are almost like apartments, so her family could move into them.”

Padgett said housing immigrants and refugees is a complex process, and congregations usually need assistance to provide everything their residents will need. “Other organizations helped—we couldn’t do it alone,” she said. “People helped with groceries, or if [Vargas] needed a doctor’s appointment.”

Despite the complexities, sheltering Vargas and her family allowed the congregation not only to help someone in need but also to see the power of their faith in action, Padgett said. “God never tells us it’s going to be easy—we have to step out in faith,” she added. “That’s what our church did—we stepped out in faith.

“We live on a shoestring budget as a church, but we trusted that God would provide, and he did. We were very blessed by Miriam’s presence.”

“Being able to breathe the outside air, to feel the weather change, to be with my daughters and experience daily life with them just like anybody—it’s amazing.”

Inspired by First English’s experience with Vargas, in April 2021 at the ELCA Church Council a motion was approved to make the whole denomination a sanctuary church body.

At the same meeting, the council also encouraged an understanding of the word “sanctuary” that is rooted in the principles of walking alongside, or accompanying, immigrants and refugees but acknowledged that “sanctuary” has no legal or universally accepted definition.

“Sanctuary is the church’s response to family separation—we value the capacity for families to live together.”

Source: Living Lutheran