Thirty five years ago on March 24,1980, then Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, was killed by the bullet of an assassin while celebrating mass at the altar of a chapel. His death riveted the awareness of many in the United States to the violence and persecutions going on in El Salvador against those who spoke up for the poor and landless masses who had no hope for a better life without economic reforms. Oscar Romero had reluctantly but powerfully become the voice of the poor.
He and others had turned churches into places of sanctuary and refuge. Meanwhile, the hundreds of Salvadoran refugees who fled north into the US were captured and detained by the INS and held indefinitely as criminals rather than be treated as refugees fleeing certain death. Many churches in Arizona and other border states declared themselves “sanctuaries” as a part of a modern movement in which religious communities become safe spaces where refugees can find solace and protection where States have failed to provide such protection.
This is not a new phenomenon, though, there is much to understand about this modern sanctuary movement. In the ancient Greek world, while Greek city-states constantly warred against each other, and while legal punishments and retributions for various crimes could be swift and cruel, there was a law older than memory recognized by them all. Any refugee fleeing anything for any reason could make his or her way to a sacred grove and once inside the bounds of the grove would be safe from any persecution or punishment. It was the only ancient safety net for the possibility that human justice might be flawed. It allowed that there were sacred spaces, spaces which connected the domesticated world to the world of the gods, which could not be violated even by the power of law. Flocks of animals that wandered into a sacred grove could not be touched. They could not be led out of the grove by a shepherd. They could not be slaughtered for food. They were in safe space. So human refugees. The grove was instantly safe space.
I wonder today to what degree our religious buildings and communities of people are safe places for the various “refugees” of our larger society. Our community at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett is eager to proclaim itself as a “welcoming congregation,” and we want the larger society to know how deeply we are willing to practice welcoming: for people of all races, for all gender orientations, for people of all legal statuses, for individuals and families of all configurations. We also know that it has become fashionable for religious communities to say that they are “welcoming” or to place on church signs “Welcome!” but that the experience inside is anything but refuge.
Today, how do we communicate to others that engagement with us is engagement in sacred space? How do we convey that we welcome others and that this welcoming is genuine and from our very core? How do we find the courage (the working of the heart) to be sanctuary, offer refuge, physically provide that Grove of Safety that our larger society is ready to lock away, out of sight, out of mind? The Grove is more than a lovely pastoral image. It is the real work of life and death.