Sanctuary Congregations

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Greg Martin – October 23, 2016

Our theme for the month of October is sanctuary. We have been exploring in various ways how we as a community, how others in other places seek to provide sanctuary, safe space, a place for people to come and be themselves, to find healing and wholeness, as well as purpose.  This morning our theme is sanctuary congregations. We are beginning this morning with a video from a new Ken Burns documentary called “Defying the Nazis:  the Sharps’ War”.  It premiered sometime last month. I know a number of you have had a chance to see it; it’s been on our local PBS station, and it is readily available online for those who would like to view it.1

Waitstill and Martha Sharp were Unitarians, and in 1939, Waitstill, the male in that couple, who was a Unitarian minister, was asked to go to Europe, to work to provide some relief and help for all of those fleeing some of the Nazi terror in especially Czechoslovakia but other parts of Europe as well; and his wife Martha  accompanied him . They both became very much changed by this experience to say the least. You could even say that Martha Sharp became a “nasty woman” in the process. [laughter]  And I am so grateful to see so many nasty women [applause] and nasty men out there today … who understand.   The clip we are going to see from the documentary is how one of the ways that they sought to provide sanctuary was to bring some children out of the threat of the terror of war to safety. We’re going to see one of those children, now well advanced in life, share a bit of her story. And you’ll pick up a little bit on Martha’s role. You’ll hear Martha’s voice at the beginning of this clip. So I invite you now to watch and listen.

Martha Sharp: We knew that the Gestapo were monitoring our mail. Our letters had to be smuggled onto transport planes to ensure their delivery. On March 14 I went to the airport with secret documents and witnessed an event that would have a profound effect on the rest of my life. Nicholas Winton had arranged a kinder transport plane that was to leave from Prague and carry children as well as documents I had brought to the airport.

The parents had brought sweets and other small gifts, while saying the mundane things that are usually said before parting, “Be good”, “We’ll be together soon”, all the while knowing they might not see them again.

Survivor: Times were so desperate. People were very thankful if they could get their children onto the …


Well of course it worked perfectly prior to the service. We’ll try and bring it to you again later on.

Part of what I would share from that remainder of the clip is, the voice that you just began to hear was the voice of an older woman who was one of those children who got on that flight. The most significant thing about the flight is that the next day the whole area was invaded. It was the last flight out of Vienna to safety. The woman who was just speaking, one of the survivors, also shares the fact that …

[sound from video]

It’s on again …   Ok  …   On again,  off again …

Survivor:  “… transports. I do remember at the airport my mother was walking up and down with my sister arm and arm rather pensively then also that we had our sort of last meal, and my father took photographs.

Martha:  The plane was announced. As each child stepped off the exit he or she waved to their parents, ran across the snow-covered field, waved again, and climbed aboard the plane. The parents’ self-control was incredible, smiling brightly, eyes brimming with tears, they waived back.

Survivor:   You know they thought one of us might be able to escape, was hoping to come to England.

Martha:  Suddenly the engine raced, the plane took off and it was lost in the low clouds.

Survivor:   Well, my mother and the rest of my family of course didn’t survive. They would have died in Auschwitz, yes. Well, I’d rather not go and dwell upon it if you don’t mind.”

Unitarians made a significant commitment to provide sanctuary in a time of international upheaval.  And Martha and Waitstill Sharp gave much of themselves to that effort.

We live in times, oh, perhaps different from those times, and yet we live in times when the lives of so many people are at stake in our world.  The equitable treatment of so many often seems to be brushed aside.  The lack of compassion is too often present.  One of the places where there is great need and there has been a lot of hateful language and actions in recent years and especially in recent months and weeks and days has related to those who are newcomers to our shore, sometimes refugees, immigrants , those seeking a better life for many reasons.  They enrich our nation as most of our families have done over the generations and centuries.  They enrich us in countless ways; they renew us.  And yet the climate for those coming is often one of grave peril and danger not just to get here, but once they arrive.

And as you know there have been calls in this election cycle to repel all newcomers from our borders.  And so in the last couple of years a movement has arisen that calls itself sanctuary congregations. Actually it’s a very old, old movement in our world, going way back in the millennium.  Most cultures had provisions for those coming out of danger or uncertainty to come in and be received, to provide sanctuary.    Most ancient cultures actually had cities designated as sanctuary cities, where if you had been wrongly accused of a crime you could flee to that city for protection and safety until everything could be unfolded and revealed so that your innocence and safety could be maintained.

We actually have cities in this country who claim sanctuary status.  They are cities where police departments do not look at things like “green cards” or one’s status as a citizen to provide aid or to respond to difficulties.

Beginning in the 1980’s quite a few religious congregations around the country banded together in a movement called Sanctuary.  It was primarily for those coming from Central American nations all riveted by war.  Many of the people coming north faced sure torture if not death by returning to their home countries.   And many congregations decided they needed to take an extra step in those days by shielding, by protecting, by surrounding those families and individuals who faced sure terror to return, to provide a space for a new home and a new place to be.  To provide legal services and all sorts of other efforts.  Well that movement drew a lot of fire in some ways because the policies of the U.S. government at that time was to deport all of those folks.  So as religious people all with deep values of compassion to the stranger and justice for all, those congregations decided that based on their values and their principles and their priorities and their calling they needed to risk themselves to provide shelter and sanctuary.

And so a couple of years ago, in 2014 actually, a number of Unitarian Universalists and others out there, the United Church of Christ for one, I believe, a number of Catholic dioceses, and other groups, the Friends community (the Quakers), others, decided it was time for a new sanctuary movement in our nation. Primarily because so many families were now being disrupted and torn apart by the laws in our nation.  Children, even infants, left here while parents were deported.  Fathers taken away with children present here.   Or sometimes children taken away and parents left here.

And so actually the Unitarian Universalists of Denver, Colorado, decided that they needed to take some stronger measures, that keeping families together, that providing a way for people to get the legal assistance they needed to remain in this country and to work toward citizenship were priorities.  And it was the Unitarian Universalists of Denver along with others in the Denver area, and then it began to spread throughout the country.   Congregations saying, “We don’t care about following unjust laws.  We care about families and people, and we will act on those values.”  And so the folks in Denver opened their sanctuary, their church building literally to a father of teenage girls who was going to be deported.  And other congregations around the country began to do similar things.  Sometimes within the walls of their congregations, sometimes in other settings, but began to work together in partnership with other people of  faith and commitments to justice.  To say enough is enough.  We will provide protection and sanctuary.  And by doing that, actually the most amazing thing is that now two years later most of the folks who have been taken in and sheltered have won legal victories.  They are no longer in sanctuary because now they are residents of this country legally.  It is amazing work that has been done but it has taken great risk on the part of many.  And so as I think about folks like the Sharps in their day in their time and I think about congregations who have taken these more extraordinary steps you might say, it makes me wonder as November 8th approaches what we will be called upon to do in the near future.  Elections being what they are I think the wisest folks never actually predict elections until the results are in.

And so as I reflect this year on where we’re at and especially the powerful needs of sanctuary it makes me realize that on November 8th depending on which way the election goes we may find ourselves needing to step it up, because lives will be even more in danger on these shores. Or even if the election goes in the other way I think one of the great  concerns right now is backlash and the violence that could potentially ensue a­­­gainst anyone who looks different or is a stranger.

Robert P. Jones recently published a study called The End of White Christian America.2 It’s in many respects a demographic study about the shifts that are taking place in our country population-wise. We all are aware of course that several things have been happening over the last forty or fifty years in our nation. We have become increasingly more diverse; that means people coming to our shores from all sorts of places and becomin­­­­g American. It means people of various cultures and backgrounds and religions. This is the most religiously diverse nation on the face of the earth.  It means that racially and ethnically there is an amazing shift taking place here where the once majority white population is very close if not already there of now becoming the minority.

We also live in a country that even though we are so religiously diverse in many respects is becoming less religious. The growing number of people who have no religious affiliation continues to rise and rise remarkably from year to year.  And so Jones’ study identifies the end of white Christian America. He actually says that white Christians are not go­­­ing to disappear from these shores. They will be survived by many, many descendants for many, many years. He says they are not disappearing, they are just shrinking and they are becoming a minority.  So one of the questions for us especially raised by this election in the midst of those changes is this. Will that minority retreat into disengaged enclaves banding together to launch repeated rounds of what you could say rearguard actions, defensive offenses as the sociologist Nathan Glazer has called them. Will they resort to these things because this once powerful majority now sees itself now as a beleaguered minority attempting to preserve its own social values? Will they continue to lash out against anyone they perceive as other? Or will this new minority find a way to integrate into the new American cultural landscape? I think those are significant questions for us right now.

And I think we all have a responsibility to work for the latter. Which means building some bridges across all kinds of lines.  Henry David Thoreau, that good Yankee Transcendentalist (though he did resign his membership from his Unitarian church, so be careful when you claim him as one of us), in his journal for October 23rd, 1852–note that date, October 23rd (that’s about, I don’t know, 164 years ago today).  He wrote in his journal that day, “My friend is one whom I meet who takes me for what I am. A stranger takes me for something else than I am. We do not speak. (He was a good introvert.) We cannot communicate until we find that we are recognized. The stranger supposes in our stead a third person whom we do not know, and we leave them to converse with that one. Suspicion creates the stranger and substitutes him for the friend.” And then he says this, “It is suicide for us to become abettors in misapprehending ourselves.” I take these words to suggest, especially that line about suspicion, whenever suspicion is around, Thoreau says it creates strangers, both of the other person and of you.  He suggests that the persons that we see in each other are not really the persons that exist. I take from this we need to make sure they know who we are, and we need to receive who they are, and that process is one of becoming friends.

We are at a very critical point where we need to stretch the boundaries, to not view each other as strangers but to find out who each of us really is. As we move forward from November 8th I don’t yet know what will be required of us. I do know we need to be willing to risk and risk greatly. And I do know that part of the solution is working to build friends. May it be so.



2  Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. Simon & Schuster. 2016.