“Would You Harbor Me?”

“Would You Harbor Me?”

September 30, 2018

Friends, it has been an emotional week, for those of us following national events. Yesterday I saw something on social media that brought the past week’s events into line with our topic for today. The social media meme said, in today’s USA, “a 17-year-old, privileged, white teenage boy can’t be held accountable, but toddlers brought to America are detained, held in cages, and expected to defend themselves in immigration court.” These are the surreal times that some of us have found ourselves raging against this week.

We will, together and over time, offer each other a safe space here to share and hold some of the trauma that has come up for some of us as this past week’s events unfolded. But today I want to focus my sermon, as originally intended, on offering safer spaces for some of the most vulnerable people in this country: our undocumented neighbors here in the United States. It is hard to think of anyone more vulnerable in the world, really, than the immigrant children – even tiny children – that under our own government’s auspices have been taken away from their families, placed in cages, and in some cases bureaucratically misplaced and, for the moment, unable to be reunited with their own families. It is unconscionable.

I want to thank our Music Director, Molly, and the Artemis Singers for singing that anthem this morning, that wonderful song by Ysaye Barnwell, leader of Sweet Honey in the Rock and a Unitarian Universalist herself.

“Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?”

I first became aware of this great song in 2008 at the Service of the Living Tradition at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, our annual business meeting. The SLT is a worship service where UU religious professionals are recognized at various stages of their careers and lives – from their earliest days, as ministers in Preliminary Fellowship (as we call it) through Final Fellowship, Retirement, and, finally, death. I remember the 2008 SLT well because that was the year I was on stage at GA for the first time, for Preliminary Fellowship, and I must say, standing in front of a mega-size congregation of UUs is a breath-taking thrill. The choir for GA (the Singers of the Living Tradition) sang Barnwell’s song as their anthem that day. And the SLT preacher, Rev. Victoria Safford, one of our great contemporary UU preachers, asked us to think carefully about the central questions of the song. “Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?”

Safford’s sermon noted that the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, renown preacher of Riverside Church in NYC, asked the question, “Who tells you who you are?” which Safford noted “is another way of asking what covenants you’re bound by, who harbors you and whom you harbor.” It’s a theological question. Who tells you who you are? Coffin noted that some people let money tell them who they are, or status… some even let their enemies or their mistakes tell them who they are. Safford reminded us that for Coffin, a Christian, the right answer to “who tells you who you are” comes from the Prophet Isaiah: “You are mine, saith the Lord”.

In her 2008 SLT sermon, Safford also quoted a Quaker teacher named Douglas Steere, who said “that the ancient question, ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one, ‘Whose am I?” because (as Safford notes) “there is no identity outside of relationship. You can’t be a person by yourself. To ask ‘Whose am I?’ is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder, Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?” Whose are you?

And so I ask again, whom would you harbor?

According to the dictionary, harboring someone is offering someone protection; it’s sheltering someone; it’s offering them refuge; it’s offering them sanctuary. The other sense of the word “sanctuary” is a sacred place, like the beautiful space we’re in right now. It comes from the Latin word “sanctus”, meaning holy.

Sanctuary is a pretty interesting phenomenon, historically. By the law of the medieval church, a fugitive or someone on the run from authorities could go to a church sanctuary and be immune from arrest. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, “In Anglo-Saxon England, churches … generally provided 40 days of immunity” for the person running from the authorities. Over time this right of sanctuary became weaker, and finally it was abolished altogether.

But the concept of a church or other religious sanctuary as a safe space for one needing refuge from the authorities never completely went away. The idea that there is a higher law than human law, whether you call it God’s law or Moral law, the idea that there is a higher authority than human law remained. In the 1800s in the United States, churches were part of the Underground Railroad system that offered refuge to those fleeing slavery. To give some more modern examples, in the 1960s and 70s, there was a movement among some churches to provide sanctuary for those resisting the U.S. war in Vietnam. But the modern U.S. sanctuary movement, which is mainly to help undocumented immigrants, really got its big start in the 1980s, helping refugees from Central American countries fleeing political and civil unrest. The federal immigration policies at the time (as now) made it very challenging to achieve asylum status, so the churches tried to offer an alternative. To this day, some churches offer sanctuary to immigrants who are undocumented, and to refugees who don’t have official asylum status.

Locally, there is a church that is preparing to offer its space to an immigrant or small immigrant family. They have been preparing carefully for this for some time now, working with a group called the Merrimack Valley Interfaith Sanctuary Network. I have been attending many of their meetings, and I am planning to help this local church when their guests arrive. I will be providing accompaniment, as it is considered a best practice to have someone in the sanctuary church along with the person or persons taking sanctuary there. There is training on how to do this; it’s not so hard once you learn some basics of “to dos” and “not to dos” to cover the shifts, most of which are four hours. If you might be interested in helping this local sanctuary church, please let me know. I’ll be sharing more information in the future on our listserv. That’s part of the reason I am preaching on the idea of sanctuary today.

Sometimes when I’m at an interfaith worship service, or at an interfaith justice action, people sing a song called “Sanctuary”, written by Randy Scruggs and John Thompson. Maybe you’ve heard it before. I’d sing it, if I could sing. The words are:

Lord prepare me to be sanctuary

Pure and holy, tried and true

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living

Sanctuary for You

Now, when I’m with religious comrades with a more traditional theology than mine, I often make translations that help me to get on the same page, at least in the ways that matter the most in a humanistic sense. So whenever I hear this song, I hear it in a way that makes it more meaningful for me. And the part that stays with me is this: How can I be a living sanctuary? How can I be a safe space for others, acting on my highest, holiest, most sacred ideals?  How can I, how can we, be sanctuary? Because the answer to Steele’s questions of “Whose life is altered by your choices?” is, in the grand scheme, everyone – every being on earth, and certainly every human.

One of the interesting things about this moment we’re in, this moment of resistance to reactionary and hateful policies and behaviors, is that a lot of it is trying to create safe spaces for the most vulnerable. It’s like the impulse behind wearing a safety pin, which became a symbol right after the 2016 election: Letting people know that you intend to help them be safe. You intend, in essence, to be sanctuary.

And it involves risk. Trying to keep people safer means, sometimes, making ourselves less safe. It requires, sometimes, people with certain types of privilege (white, male, straight, English-speaking, etc.) to assume some of the risk that less privileged, or more vulnerable, persons face all the time. That’s what it is to be sanctuary; the sacred act of embodying the reality that we are all one, that we are all in this together, by sharing risk. In many ways, it’s more about sharing risk than creating safety. In a world where, as the great poet Audre Lorde put it, “We were never meant to survive”, safety is ultimately an illusion.

Being sanctuary, and taking risks, also means making mistakes. Most people don’t love making mistakes. As I noted once before here, I find that Unitarian Universalists often seem to have a particular aversion to making mistakes. But you can’t be sanctuary from a place of emotional safety any more than you can from a place of physical safety. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, and risk making mistakes, to be your best self, to be sanctuary.

We can’t let the fear that imperialism and creeping fascism creates keep us from doing what is right. Again, as Audre Lorde writes, “For those of us / who were imprinted with fear / like a faint line in the center of our foreheads / learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk / for by this weapon / this illusion of some safety to be found / the heavy-footed hoped to silence us.”

Some have used the term “Fear Industrial Complex” to describe this tool of the heavy-footed. The term was coined by Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. His basic argument is that the Fear Industrial Complex is made up of politicians and corporations or even activist groups who create fear around certain issues or circumstances, and then reel us in by promising safety from the supposed danger. Glassner says, “Whenever somebody’s trying to scare us, the question to ask is ‘Are they benefiting from it, and in what way?’ ….  Is [the danger they’re describing] big, is [the danger] small, or is it just that they stand to benefit by making us scared?”[1]

So look at the fears in our country today. Who benefits? “Follow the fear”, so to speak. So, exactly who benefits from anti-immigrant fears? Some politicians are benefiting from the fear. Stoking anti-immigrant fear can get you power in a place that has lots of scared native-born people, especially if you convince them that the immigrants are dangerous criminals who are also taking their jobs away. If you follow the fear, not surprisingly, it ultimately leads you to “follow the money”. One obvious winner from anti-immigrant fear is the Prison Industrial Complex. By criminalizing any immigrant who is not authorized to be here under our complicated rules, we create lots of criminals. With every undocumented immigrant, you have created an illegal immigrant – a person that our system treats as a criminal. That’s millions of criminals created by immigration laws alone. It’s good business for the Prison Industrial Complex, which is increasingly privatized. Business is booming. And when they try to use fear to get us to militarize our borders? That would be a win for the Military Industrial Complex. And don’t get me started on that wall.

The good news is that there is an antidote to fear, and that antidote is love. That’s what the “Side with Love” campaign of the UUA is all about. Let’s not be guided by fear. Let’s be guided by love. We can side with love and the victims of the Fear Industrial Complex, with those who are scapegoated so that others might gain. Fear is powerful, but the warmth of love can be even more powerful. And it leads us to action. There can be no more central call for us than protecting the vulnerable. There can be no call more central for us than providing harbor for those to whom we belong – and the saving message of Unitarian Universalism is that we belong to each other. Come, let us build such a land, and create sanctuary everywhere. May it be so. Blessed be, and amen.


[1] Barry Glassner, as quoted in The ‘Fear Industrial Complex’: How the Media, Government and Corporate America Bank on the Business of Fear, by John Stossel and Natalie D. Jaquez, February 2007, found at http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2898636&page=1

Rev. Lara Hoke

(c) September 30, 2018

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