Maybe the most popular story of the role of the church in providing sanctuary is the Disney rendition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where several people claim sanctuary within the walls of the great church. At one point in the film, Quasimodo rescues Esmerelda, a young Roma girl targeted for execution by the bigoted Archdeacon Frollo, brings her to the bell tower, and bellows; “Sanctuary.” Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, churches were considered sanctuary space, space where people could not be arrested for alleged crimes and safe harbors for people at risk of lynch mobs (often while awaiting trial). In some ways, churches functioned as some modern states do, as places of refuge or asylum for people fleeing for their lives.
Throughout history, churches have claimed this in various ways. In Nazi Germany and Europe, many churches and individuals became part of an underground network smuggling Jews out of the country. In the United States, there have been several times in history when churches have claimed sanctuary. This right has never been enshrined into law, but it has been claimed on multiple occasions.
When slaves ran away from southern plantations, during the days of the Fugitive Slave Act, a highly organized network of former black slaves, free-born blacks, congregations, and abolitionist sympathizers offered escaping individuals and families sanctuary. They did it in direct violation of the law, which imposed up to 6 months in prison or a $1,000 fine for anyone harboring a fugitive. Officers who captured runaway slaves were paid bounties. However, churches and leaders like Harriet Tubman still created the “Underground Railroad” to harbor runaways, shepherding over 1,000 people per year into the free states and Canada.
Recently, several churches across the country have offered physical refuge to undocumented immigrant families, claiming the right of sanctuary.
There is a sense in which the very recent move by churches to open up their doors and parking lots to homeless encampments, car camping, shelters, and refuge, functions in a similar way. Homelessness, while on the rise in the US, is becoming increasingly criminalized. Sleeping outside, camping in city limits, sitting or sleeping on park benches, sitting in front of libraries after hours to charge phones or use WIFI, and any number of other activities necessary for survival can be criminal offenses in most cities. Further, because of the heavy use of bench warrants in small and mid sized towns and the increased jurisdiction of DOC, many people are already technically on the run from the law for failing to make appointments, court dates, or court ordered programs.
In these church hosted encampments, people are claiming sanctuary in a world where most institutions are working against them. The current dispute in Hoquiam over the city ordinance, where pastors are claiming their right to clergy privilege in not reporting to police, is an important part of this. Churches are meant to be a sanctuary, especially for people most vulnerable in our system. In order to live out the demands of the gospel, to follow a Jesus who was also once on the run from the law, churches and pastors are not simply providing space, but also sanctuary.