Not In My Backyard

By: Valerie Burton

8 Minute Read

Why did two of your ministers sign the Interfaith Proclamation of Sanctuary? And how did we end up on the news? We owe you an explanation. We also want you to be an informed congregation for this difficult conversation on immigration and justice. Taylor and Valerie have written two entries to shed light on the Sanctuary Movement and its relevance for Christians today. The first entry, published today, answers the questions “What is ‘Sanctuary?’” and “What does the Bible say about the immigrant?” The second entry, to be published Friday, invites us to see ourselves in the storylines of people and parishes responding when their neighbors needed aid. As a Baptist church it is our responsibility to discern together how we will respond to the immigrant in our own community. These entries are just the beginning of what we hope is a fruitful dialogue. Lean in as we communally discern the Spirit’s leading. As Christian pastors, we know God is calling us to respond. So let us discern together what this response may look like at BCOC.

When the foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.  Leviticus 19:33-34

When did we see you a stranger and invite you in…? ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’                  Matthew 25: 38a, 40

On a Monday morning in July, a man in middle Tennessee was driving home with his 12 year old son. Immigration officers followed him and tried to pull him over. After the man pulled into the driveway of a house, the officers blocked him in. But the man and his son remained inside the vehicle. A crowd gathered and neighbors reportedly brought extra gas for the van and food and drinks while they waited. While there were immigrant advocates present, the movement to harbor the two was mainly populated by their immediate friends and neighbors from their community. The immigration officers eventually left the scene. The neighbors continued to surround the family and formed a line of protection in order for them to exit the van and enter the home.

What would I have done if a neighbor on my street had called me to say that immigration was following him and he was afraid to get out of his car? Would I have jumped into my car to go to his aid? Would it have mattered how long I had known him; or if he was undocumented; or if his son had been in school with my children?

A woman who was interviewed at the scene said she had known the man for fourteen years. She showed up to help because she didn’t want to see the father separated from his son. Fourteen years he had lived in her community.

When I think about offering sanctuary to someone in danger of being deported, this is the kind of scenario that would motivate me to action. For the woman, it was personal. She wanted to help her neighbor.

Earlier this month, plants in small towns of Mississippi were raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. ICE officers stormed the Koch Foods plant offices with guns drawn, pointed at the managers and demanded they immediately leave the office and wait in the break room. More than 600 workers were removed from the plants and detained. It was the first day of school in those communities. Children started the day with excitement and ended it with horror – many not knowing where their parent was.

Paula Dempsey of the Alliance of Baptists reached out to me personally the evening of August 9 through text. “Are you seeing what’s happening outside Jackson?” She wondered if I knew of congregations in our region who were responding to the “humanitarian crisis and/or otherwise responding to the moral crisis?” I didn’t see her message until Saturday when I was meeting folks at BCOC to prepare for a new education year.  I knew there were clergy and faith communities in Birmingham talking about immigrant justice issues and how they wanted to follow the lead of immigrant advocacy groups here in Alabama. A statement [Interfaith Proclamation of Sanctuary] written by representatives of that clergy group was in my email inbox. Later, I would find it to be thoughtfully composed, compelling, and respectfully challenging and empathetic of law enforcement. It was worded so that signers could stand in solidarity on the side of immigrant justice while allowing autonomy of persons and congregations to interpret “sanctuary” for themselves down the road.

Now, you may have heard others use the phrase, “Not in my backyard!” You may have said it yourself in regard to some unseemly activity or business moving into your neighborhood.  I wonder if we would also say it about domestic gun-violence, hate-crimes, racially motivated re-zoning for public schools or voting places. What about deportation of long-standing, tax-paying, but undocumented workers? [1]It’s a hard thing, isn’t it? We want to respect the laws of our nation, but we know there have been times in the past that the law was wrong. We want to be able to discern, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did,  a just law from an unjust law. A just law is a man made code, he said, that squares with the moral law or the law of God. The enforcement of our current immigration laws to the point of separating families and detaining people for months until their case can go to court is where the current law and it’s enforcement seems harsh, unfair, inhumane at times, simply unjust.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Canton, Mississippi went into action immediately following the raids that shook their town. Reverend Michael O’Brien pastors the church. Father Mike writes at their website:

We are now running a Crisis Center in our Parish Hall. We have lawyers, counselors (for children & adults) and social workers meeting there with impacted families. Our Parish Hall is also the collection site for donations of food, personal care items and school supplies.
We have confirmed that all our children have at least one parent in their home, so they are safe. But these children are sad, traumatized and scared. Our focus is on the children and we are even making plans for a temporary daycare ministry.
Parents no longer have jobs and with this sudden loss of income families are facing a frightening and uncertain future. Emergency funds are needed, as well as money for rent and the most basic household expenses.
Sacred Heart parishioners & churches of all denominations; families & individuals; old friends & new friends from communities near and far, have been giving awesome support. Much help is needed and will continue to be needed.[2]

Father Mike goes on to share what items are needed and how to make donations. For Father Mike it was personal. These are “our children” he says.

At the moment that our own neighbors are impacted or “our children” are separated from their families, will we set aside the entanglements (aka politics, semantics, optics) and down-right fear that might prevent us from taking action? I’d like to think that I would respond like the neighbors in Tennessee or like Father Mike defending and caring for the most vulnerable.

A few years ago, when the enforcement of immigration law came to the forefront of people’s minds, our own volunteers in our Internationals ministry decided they would continue serving those who came without any question. They would not ask for identification or require documentation. They would assure students that while they were inside our buildings, they were safe and conversational English classes would continue as they always had. We have practiced this kind of welcome to all people since our inception and in spite of what was said about us. We organized care-teams for people with HIV/AIDS when it was an unpopular political issue in Alabama. We have partnered alongside Beloved Community to provide safe and blessed space for years hosting families through Family Promise. Each Wednesday, we open our doors to feed the poor, homeless, and hungry on a first-come basis. We don’t check IDs. In fact, we have gone to great lengths to make sure they are kept safe while on our property.

We are a justice-minded group of folks. We are known in our community for hospitality and aid. Our neighbors know that we care. Other agencies in town often refer folks to us for assistance. It’s no wonder video footage of our steeple ended up on the news after the Interfaith Proclamation for Sanctuary was made public. We seem to be known for this sort of thing. Let’s continue to define ourselves by the ways WE offer sanctuary to the disenfranchised and the alien among us. Politics will try to define our reasoning. The evening news may try to interpret what we are doing before we even do it. Let us find confidence or motivation in saying that we are caring for the one in whose eyes we see the eyes of Jesus.

I read a journal entry recently in which Rev. Dr. George Mason said, We say we belong to the tribe of Jesus, but we’ve been revising his words to fit our politics instead of revising our politics to fit his words.[3]

That’s convicting to me and my thinking. And then, I recall words from our corporate and individual commitments that motivate me to engage fully this dialogue on immigrant justice with you.

Corporately, We commit ourselves to: …a prophetic proclamation of the Christian faith that is responsible and free, fervently evangelical, socially concerned, and relevant to our needs as a caring fellowship in today’s society.

Personally, I commit myself to… Give myself in loving concern for individuals within the church, supporting them in life needs, seeking to be an instrument of reconciliation and recognizing the freedom and dignity of personal convictions within the bonds of unity.


[2]; Canton: How to help

[3]Mason, George. Christians without Borders: Toward a Trespassing Church, Christian Ethics Today, Summer 2019

6 thoughts on “Not In My Backyard

  1. Thank you for speaking out. As Christians we owe sanctuary to all who so desperately need it. Eljee Bentley

  2. Thank you for reminding us of our responsibilities as followers of a loving God. I hope we will always have the courage step out in love and help our neighbors.

  3. I did not read this until now. I support your words and am grateful. Yes… we must find ways to be brave and compassionate and adapt our policies to Jesus’ politics and prophetic words. Thank you Val!

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