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Pastor's Notes from The Scribe (September 2019)

posted Sep 3, 2019, 8:41 AM by Mary Margaret Barnoff

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

It’s been an exciting time in the ELCA while I’ve been away on parental leave!  The ELCA met for its Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee, WI from August 5 to August 10.  Churchwide Assembly is a bit like each synod’s Synod Assembly but on a larger scale, and only once every three years.  927 voting members representing each of the ELCA’s 65 synods gathered together to conduct the business of the church, to hear reports from the churchwide bodies, and to gather together for worship.

Some of the bigger things that happened at the Churchwide assembly included: The Assembly conducted an election for Presiding Bishop, where Bishop Elizabeth Eaton was re-elected to a second term as Presiding Bishop; they recognized the fiftieth anniversary of the ELCA recognizing the ordination of women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament; they voted to change the entrance rite for ministers of Word and Service (known as deacons) from “consecration” to “ordination,” which helps to reinforce that ministers of Word and Service serve the church in an office that’s equal to, though distinct from, ministers of Word and Sacrament; and they approved a resolution declaring the ELCA a “sanctuary church body.”

That last one – the sanctuary church body thing – made the national news when a panel on Fox and Friends discussed the resolution, and several other media outlets picked up the story.  I read the resolution from the Churchwide assembly, and I watched the Fox News panel, and it seems to me like the panelists may have been a little bit misinformed about the resolution. Each of them mentioned the rule of law, or law and order, in what they said, and they implied that the ELCA Churchwide Assembly was calling on congregations and individuals to break the law through this resolution.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The ELCA’s Memorials Committee, in their report on the resolution, explicitly says that “none of the recommended actions by the Memorials Committee breaks U.S. law in any form.”

So what does it mean that the ELCA has declared ourselves a “sanctuary church body?” In a lot of ways, it’s a way of recognizing and putting a name on something that we’ve been doing for a long time.  The resolution points to some of the work that the ELCA has already done to work with refugees and legal immigrants, especially in their “Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities” (AMMPARO) program, as well as the work of individual congregations and synods in the ELCA who have done, and who are continuing to do, the work of advocating for, supporting, and comforting others through the long and complicated process of coming to America.

Of course, care for our immigrant neighbors is nothing new for Lutherans.  As long as there have been Lutherans in America, we’ve been coming here from other places.  My own ancestors came to America from Germany a lot of generations ago, but they still came from elsewhere – and even though they came legally, they still probably faced some discrimination and persecution. I just finished reading a biography of Alexander Hamilton, and I was struck by some of the excerpts of Hamilton’s letters describing German-Americans in eastern Pennsylvania – in some of the places I grew up – as ignorant, and backwards, and  dangerous. Lutherans have even been looked askance at into the twentieth century in some places – First English and Mount Zion in Trade City were both founded as English-speaking congregations, but in a lot of places, German-descended Lutherans didn’t switch to English until the 1940s, in the face of public pressure and discrimination around World War II. Immigration, and public pressure and struggles around immigration, have been a part of the Lutheran experience in America for as long as there have been Lutherans in America.

To sum up, the “sanctuary church body” resolution doesn’t call on the ELCA or any of its congregations or members to do anything illegal, or to break the law in any way.  What it does do is remind us of God’s love and mercy and compassion for strangers; for outsiders; for people who face struggles and difficulties of all sorts; and it both highlights ways that we as individuals, congregations, synods, and the denomination have shared that love with others, and calls us – ever mindful of the rule of law in this nation - to explore and imagine other ways we might also be able to share that love and mercy, just as God has shared it with us.

I know that immigration, legal or otherwise, is a very thorny issue right now, and that there are people here who hold very widely differing opinions.  No matter what anyone’s opinions on the issues around immigration in this country are, I’m privileged to be your pastor, and I hope and pray that everyone in this parish and in the ELCA can come together to share God’s love in the world, even when we hold deep and significant disagreements.  If you’d like to share concerns or questions about the “sanctuary church body” resolution with me, I would be glad to sit down and have a deeper conversation about it with you. 

In Christ,
Pastor Russ