The Nation's Pulse

Sanctuary Chic

A 1980s left-wing religious cause makes a comeback in the age of Iraq and illegal immigration.

By 8.23.06

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"Sanctuary" became a cause celebre in the 1980s when left-wing churches ostensibly offered it to illegal Central American refugees as a protest against the Reagan Administration's battles against Marxist insurgencies in Latin America.

Now "sanctuary" is chic again. There are currently two ongoing celebrated cases. One involves an illegal Mexican woman immigrant in Chicago. The other involves a U.S. army officer in Tacoma who refuses to serve in Iraq. Both involve Methodist churches.

Lt. Ehren Watada is facing a court martial because he will not deploy with his unit to Iraq, where the U.S. military effort is "morally wrong" and "a breach of American law."

Watada is currently at Ft. Lewis in Tacoma. He joined the army after the Iraq War had begun, but decided afterwards that he must oppose a war based on "lies."

In solidarity with Watada, the 250 member First United Methodist Church in Tacoma has declared itself a "sanctuary" for any U.S. soldiers who don't want to fight in Iraq or elsewhere. "We're supporting troops by giving them the space to think about what their options are in a supportive environment," a church member told the local newspaper.

First United Methodist Church Tacoma is offering legal counseling on evading military service, along with overnight shelter for conscience-ridden, anti-war soldiers. Watada has used the church for media gatherings and doubtless appreciates the supportive gesture from the Methodists, who have helped organize demonstrations on his behalf outside Ft. Lewis.

Several liberal Methodist bishops have spoken up for Watada. "I perceive in your actions a courageous questioning of the role of the military in our world and a willingness to act on the basis of what you believe to be ethically right." said Bishop Robert Hoshibata of Oregon. "I applaud your willingness to balance your call to duty with your innermost thoughts and core beliefs."

Bishop Roy Sano, as secretary of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, offered his support to Watada's mother. "I was inspired by the brave step your son took in refusing to be deployed to Iraq," he wrote. "In the United Methodist Church, we do not take civil disobedience lightly, but when necessary for conscience sake, we approve it."

The United Methodist Bishop of Los Angeles, Mary Ann Swenson, told Watada: "I commend you as one who has taken a courageous and difficult stand to publicly make known a position you have come to believe in opposition to a particular war." She insisted that the denomination's supposed anti-war stance is the "underpinning of our support for you."

Meanwhile, illegal Mexican immigrant Elvira Arellano is living in "sanctuary" at Chicago's Adalberto United Methodist Church. Its activist pastor, Walter Coleman, defends the church's harboring her based on her outspoken leadership of undocumented workers. "She defines the movement for her people, and they love her," he explained to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Rev. Coleman compared sanctuary for Arellano with Moses and the burning bush. "God said this is holy ground," he said. "She has a place here." Of course, she agrees with her pastor. "This is the house of God," Arellano told the Washington Post." "What man would enter the house of God to arrest me?"

Arellano's supporters may cite supernatural protection. But they are hoping that fear of negative publicity will prevent the Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement from enforcing its deportation order against Adalberto, whose cause has been championed by Mayor Richard Daley and Senator Richard Durbin, among other politicos. She was arrested in 2002 for using a false Social Security number, and after having entered the U.S. twice illegally. Private congressional bills delayed her deportation based on the health of her young son, which has since improved. Her notoriety as an activist has earned her a wide circle of political and religious allies.

United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcano of Phoenix, appearing on CNN in defense of Arellano, claimed that since the Old Testament, "the community of faith has provided refuge for persons who are foreigners." As a young Methodist woman, Arellano "stands out of her Christian conviction that our laws are unjust," the bishop explained.

"The United Methodist Church views the immigration policies of this country as unjust," Carcano asserted. "It is seeking the reformation of our immigration policies, stands with families like Ms. Arellano's family, requesting that this government look at the impact on families. If we really care about children in this country, this is an opportunity to care for a child." Arellano's situation is not political, the bishop insisted, it is a "moral and ethical issue."

It is a lot of high-handed talk by clerics who preside over declining churches that are long on statements and short on members. Of course, just as "sanctuary" in the 1980s was simply a ruse to oppose Reagan in Central America, "sanctuary" now is an opportunity to oppose the Iraq War and advocate unrestricted immigration as "moral" imperatives.

More revealingly, "sanctuary" is usually championed by well-heeled liberal elites hunting about for a politically palatable cause du jour. No Methodist or other liberal church elites were offering sanctuary to victims of Saddam Hussein. Not do they agitate over refugees from Fidel Castro. Indeed, the United Methodist Church helped fund Fidel Castro's lawyers in sending Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba in the 1990's. Their version of "sanctuary" only extends to the contrived victims of U.S. policies, and rarely to anybody else.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.