Thoughts on Churches and Sanctuary for Refugees Print
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Friday, 09 January 2004 11:23

Brian Burch This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it : I had the privilege of participating o­n o­ne of the panels at No o­ne Is Illegal's conference:  COMMUNITY/SOLIDARITY/SANCTUARY.  I believe that theentire day was video taped.  For more information o­n the day, including upcoming actions, contact No o­ne Is Illegal at < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >. What follows are o­ne poem and my complete notes for my presentation.

I had the privilege of participating o­n o­ne of the panels at No o­ne IsIllegal's conference:  COMMUNITY/SOLIDARITY/SANCTUARY.  I believe that theentire day was video taped.  For more information o­n the day, including upcomingactions, contact No o­ne Is Illegal at < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >.

What follows are o­ne poem and my complete notes for my presentation.If o­ne, or both, end up being picked up for publication, please send a copyof the publication to:

Brian Burch, EditorResources for Radicals20 Spruce St.Toronto, o­ntarioM5A 2H7



Around me are faces,most not indigenous to this land:Faces from Africa, from Southeast Asia,from Northern Europe, from the Middle East.Faces from this land dot the gathering.

Many are descendants of the oppressed,marginalized refugees pushed outand ending here, having no real place to call home.

Others have known first hand,in body and in spirit,violence and injusticein other lands and in our streets.

The faces hold hope and anger,hold relief and fear.

The faces are old and young.

The faces are female and male.

The faces are voices,loud and defiantly present.

Identity papers aren't shown.

All faces here are legal.


NOTES FOR A MORE COHERENT PRESENTATIONFaith and SanctuaryO.I.S.E., November 28, 2003

 There is a definitive anarchist streak in the Christian faith, thatultimately puts obedience to a personal understanding of divinewill as being more important that obedience to the dictates ofthe nation state.  And there is also an real streak of arrogance---thatwe are indeed at times morally superior than others, a superiority thatdemands that we trust our own judgement rather than popularwill. While this can be expressed is ways that have lead to oppressiveand violent movements, at its best it has inspired movements of liberation andradical compassion and encouraged individuals to take extreme personal risks o­n behalf o­n strangers and outcasts, defying convention, laws and threats ofviolence, imprisonment or death to do so.  At this time when our governmentjails people without charges, sends people to other countries to face poverty,imprisonment or death, works hand in hand with those that believe you cancall someone a danger because of whom they pray with, this positive stream ofresistance can be found, needing nurturing and encouragement but providing,for a few people, an opportunity for hope in a time of growing hopelessness.We, as a people of faith, are expected to obey the overarching demands ofthe law of love and resist being an advocate of the human law of violence.

(The above was inspired by Leo Tolstoy's  The Law of Love and the Law ofViolence).

 At the root of our understanding our sanctuary are calls heard inscripture for sanctuary, for active compassion and for a willingness to seethe divine in all. In Deuteronomy 19: 2 - 3 we read:"you shall set apart three cities for you in the land which the Lord yourGod gives you to possess.  You shall prepare the roads, and divide intothree parts the area of the land which the Lord your God gives you as apossession, so that any manslayer can flee to them." The roots of our understanding of the importance of sanctuary canbe found in this passage. People accused of violence had to have a place toflee to in order for them to be able to challenge the accusation they were facedwith This wasn't a suggestion o­n how to live in relationship with the divine;rather it is a challenge to humanity to recognise that we need to have places wherethose facing injustice could be safe. Further o­n in the Old Testament we read in Isaiah 58: 6 - 7a:"Is this not the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of wickedness, toundo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break everyyoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homelesspoor into your house" Expressions of worship, in this passage, include active compassion forthose in need---freeing the oppressed and providing a place to live forthose without a home.  How can o­ne free the oppressed if there is no place for them tolive?  How can o­ne offer a home to someone without a homeland without opening up o­ne's doors? And in an often quoted passage in Matthew 25: 41 - 46 we read:"Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'Depart from me, you cursed,into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I washungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, Iwas a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me,sick and in prison  and you did not visit me.'  Then they also will answer,'Lord, when did we we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked orsick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?'  Then he will answer them,'Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to o­ne of the least of these, youdid it not to me.'" Ultimately, we will be judged not by our participation in therituals and sacraments of the church but by the way that we directly and effectively meet theneeds of those in need---including welcoming the stranger, the sojourner, who comes intoour midst.We are not expected to have perfected mediation techniques, become skilled intheological debate or live a life of retreat and prayer.  Rather, we areexpected to respond to the physical, human needs of those around us when they are needed. It is from these, and other, passages that the idea of sanctuaryand the call for real hospitality, of being open to providing a haven from refuges,arise.  And, as individuals and as people of faith, our living out such basic andinherently conservative values is something that we can be help accountable for.

B. Some 20th century expressions of sanctuary

 I have decided not to devote a great deal of time looking at pre-modernexamples of communal and church based expressions of sanctuary---it is afascinating tradition but feels far from our lives.  o­ne examplethat must be stressed of sanctuary in pre-modern times was the welcoming ofthe Jews expelled by Christian Spain by the Islamic world, and specificallythe Ottoman Empire.  Thousands were welcomed into a foreign land all at o­nce, a sign ofreal compassion all too rarely emulated in modern times. I do want to touch upon offering of sanctuary both under extremelyoppressive situations and under stressful and uncertain situations in themodern, Western world.  My comments will necessarily be brief, but in thecurrent time of denying sanctuary and dignity to many people from manylands, I do feel that looking at the recent past can be both encouragingand a call to action.  Two examples of offering sanctuary I'll focus o­n are:

   (A) under Nazism, Christians offering sanctuary for the Jews; and (B)   in the 1960s and early 70s, Canadians faith communitieswelcoming   U.S. draft resisters It is surprising to hear advanced as serious arguments againstproviding sanctuary and support to those who come to this land the dangersof losing charitable status, the irresponsibility of breaking the law, evenstatements that perhaps in these periods of terrorist activity we must notbe so concerned with justice.  I contrast this with the many who lived o­nNazi occupation who risked imprisonment, torture and death to providesanctuary to declared enemies of the state.  As Martin Gilbert wrote:"Those who had hidden Jewish children, saving them from deportation and death,included Roman Catholics...Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, Protestants,Baptists and Lutherans, as well as Muslims in Bosnia and Albania." (TheRighteous. pg. xvi) One of the more phenomenal examples of offering sanctuary to Jewsunder the Nazi's was the French village of Le Chambon.  This was a entirecommunity, lead by both protestant and Catholic leaders, that combined to provideeffective sanctuary to large numbers of Jewish people.  They did so over theobjections of their church hierarchies and civil authorities. Some of thoseoffering sanctuary or advocating resistance to the Nazis were tortured andexecuted.  Individual Jews and some Jewish families were successfullyrounded up and many were killed.  However, from active non-co-operationwith efforts to vilify Jewish to specific efforts to interfere withinitiatives that fed into the Holocaust machine, this small village successfully provided a safehaven for a large number of Jews and remains an example of successful pacifistactions against a violence and oppression structure. Within Germany itself, where the official Catholic and Protestant church leaders activelysupported the Nazi regime, offering of sanctuary was seen as the o­nly realway of living out a faithful life by thousands of individuals who tooksubstantive risks to provide shelter and some degree of safety.  As o­ne example, again fromGilbert, "Only a few Pomeranian Jews were not deported.  They owed their survival, write thehistorian of Pomeranian Jewry, Stephen Nicholls, 'either to the loyalty oftheir Christian partner or to the bravery to those who were prepared to hidesingle Jews.  For example, Joachim Pfannschmidt, vicar of Gross Kiesow nearGriefswald and an active member of the German Confession church, hidGertrud Birnbaum in his vicarage from 1939-1944.  This pharmacist fromBerlin survived the war. (pg. 285).

(Comments o­n sanctuary under the Nazis  are based o­n:Irving Abella and Harold Troper.  None is Too Many.Martin Gilbert.  The Righteous:  The Unsung Heroes of the HolocaustPhilip Hallie.  Lest Innocent Blood be ShedAnny Latour.  The Jewish Resistance in France, especially the sections 'The Huguenot Stronghold' and 'Underground Networks for Child Rescue'Milton Meltzer.  Rescue.)

 In more recent times, in the background of my early years of activism,thousands of Canadians opened up homes, church spaces and drop-in centres toprovide sanctuary to up to 500,000 young Americans who would not support theU.S. war in Vietnam.  To provide an idea of the climate of the time,immediately following the declaration of the War Measures Act in October 1971 this exampleof anti-terrorist legislation was seen as a possible weapon againstundersireable draft resisters.  In John Hagan's book Northern Passage (pg. 141)  we read "The mayors of Canada's largest cities used the law in a backlashagainst American war resisters.  Mayor William Dennison of Toronto claimed that "afew hippies and deserters are Toronto's o­nly problem."  Mayor Jean Drapeau of Montrealcharged that draft and military resisters were part of a "revolutionary conspiracy.Mayor Tom Campbell of Vancouver declared, "I don't like draft dodgers and I'll doanything within  the law that allows me to get rid of them."  All three expressed awillingness to use the War Measurers Act against war resisters. Mayor Campbell was the mostexplicit, telling the Toronto Star, "I believe the law should be used against anyrevolutionary whether he's a U.S. draft dodger or a hippie." For most, the difficulties facing U.S. draft dodgers and militarydeserters were economic, cultural and emotional---leaving a country at war to find havenin a near-by country is difficult.  But illegal extradition, arbitrary decisions byimmigration officers and changes in rules around granting landed immigrant status that weren'tdebated in the legislature created additional burdens.  Those unable to getlegal status needed safe housing, financial support and aid in findingemployment and other forms of pragmatic assistance.  Churches, such as theChurch of the Holy Trinity, opened up their doors for draft resisters tosleep.  Individuals, such as Nancy Pocock of the Society of Friends(Quakers) provided emotional support, referrals and hot soup.  Theyoperated in a space between laws--- the government wasn't actively sendingU.S. citizens back to face (in many cases) charges and imprisonment fordesertion or refusing to co-operative with the draft.  But there was littlein the way of support for those that made it to Canada with noresources o­n their own.  And in 1965 those providing sanctuary to the firstwave of resisters did not likely think it would be a decade before their work was over. This openness to U.S. anti-war refugees is, to me, a highlight ofthe faith response to those coming to Canada.  Jewish activists from HolyBlossom joined with those from Toronto Monthly Meeting to find commonground in welcoming those who would not participate in war.Many active from that time, from Ann Pohl to Frank Showler, both in andoutside of the faith communities, maintain their commitment to ensuringthat there be a haven here for those needing sanctuary.

(Comments o­n sanctuary for U.S. draft resisters are based o­n:

James Dickerson.  North to CanadaSherry Gershon Gottlieb.  Hell No  We Won't GoJohn Hagan.  Northern PassageRoger Neville Williams.  The New Exiles:  American War Resisters in Canada

 The radical risk taking of those providing sanctuary to the Jewsunder Nazi dominated Europe or the demanding welcoming by those providingsanctuary to anti-Vietnam War Americans, do provide examples today that somecongregations (less than a dozen in all) are now following---all toofew---and that some agencies are mimicking---but again all too few.   People are beingsent back to places where they risk torture and imprisonment, possibility even death,while others with almost identical backgrounds are granted refugee status.  Somehousing providers demand perfect proof of a legal right to reside in Canada whileothers seek for loopholes in a complex system. And perhaps there is something a little less pleasant in therefusal of some within the faith communities to take risks.  This is, afterall, a country that refused a shipload of Jewish refugees sanctuary when they weretrying to escape Nazi Germany.  This is a country that rounded up citizensof Japanese origin during the Second World War.  And while Canada did welcome U.S.draft resisters, o­nly a comparative small number of the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugeesended up here---most of them sponsored by congregations or community groups and notas convention refugees.   Is there perhaps some unspoken message whenCanada does not automatically offer haven to gay men facing imprisonment orwomen coming her to escape genital mutilation?  What is the message that we provide to the world when Leonard Peltier was improperly and rapidly extradited to the U.S. while Holocaustdenier Ernst Zundel is o­nly now being considered for deportation to Germany?  Is there a proposal to the world that Canada is making with individuals within the Islamiccommunity, Canadian citizens, are not being welcomed back to Canada butsent to Syria or Afghanistan against their will? It was a minority of Christians that defied church leaders and thelaw to provide sanctuary for the Jews.  It was a minority of Canadians ofall faith backgrounds and from many places o­n the progressive spectrum that actively welcomedAmerican draft resisters.  I do wonder what is in the hearts of the majority who are silent, the majority who are not showing by their actions that those in need are not welcomed here.

Last Updated on Friday, 09 January 2004 11:23