As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!
Lord, Prepare Me
A couple weeks ago, I spent a long Sunday afternoon in the basement fellowship hall of an old Catholic Church in South Philadelphia. I sat in one of the metal folding chairs arranged in three rows of concentric circles around the perimeter of the room, and I watched as families, groups of friends, and the occasional lone individual checked in at the welcome table and found a place to sit. The room soon filled with the classic sounds and smells of a well-worn fellowship hall—coffee from old carafes, children’s squeals and parental shushing, a soft rumble of small talk, perfume mixed with the faint hint of popcorn.
The room grew to a gradual quiet when a man named Peter began speaking into a microphone connected to a crackling sound system, another staple of a classic fellowship hall experience. He introduced himself and his colleague, Maria, who welcomed everyone in Spanish and, in turn, introduced her colleague who would serve as her translator for the duration of our meeting. Everyone kept their coats on as the windy winter weather saturated the space, and every face registered comprehension at either the first round of sentences spoken or the next. In the lag time, people shifted in their seats, took notes, or calmly attended to their children who were seeping impatience because of the pace.
Indeed, we are God’s holy place, and because this is [tried and] true, God is the sovereign author of life—of my life and of the life of the person to whose arms I was linked, of the family’s life inside the house, and of the ICE agents doing their job.
I had never seen any of these people before, but I instantly knew that they belonged to me and I belonged to them. We had gathered on this cold February afternoon to make that fact explicit and to learn how to respond in the event of a house raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the larger Philadelphia area. We learned about the importance of spiritual preparation, we learned about the technicalities of current laws and rules, and through several rounds of role play, we learned how to act in courage and nonviolence when we are called upon to use our bodies to disrupt a raid. This act of disruption takes the form of an interfaith service, as the group gathers in prayer and song, declares the gathering a worship service in solidarity with the family being targeted, and provides a faithful witness to the events taking place. In this way, the service seeks to be a kind of mobile sanctuary, or Sanctuary in the Streets.
Tried and True
The word “sanctuary” has been bandied about quite a bit in recent weeks, often as a political commitment that particular cities, communities, schools, and even some workplaces are making to provide some level of protection for people facing the threat of arrest and deportation by ICE agents. But the word itself is ancient, from the Latin sanctuarium, meaning a place (“-arium”) that is holy, sacred (“sanctus”). The Bible is replete with such holy places, as characters encounter God in particular places and ways. Hagar naming the God who sees her and the place she was seen (Genesis 16), Jacob wrestling at Peniel (Genesis 32), and Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3) all come to mind for a start.
By no means limited to the narratives of the Bible, the idea of these kinds of holy places can be found throughout the world and its religious history. The Greek island of Delos bears this holy significance as the mythical birthplace of twin gods Apollo and Artemis, for example, while the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar is a sacred Buddhist site believed to contain the relics of four previous Buddhas. Even the Vatican’s breathtaking St. Peter’s Basilica was constructed on the site traditionally believed to be where the apostle Peter is buried, lying beneath the high altar and its bronze baldachin designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Out of such holy places, where Divine realities meet human ones, another ancient idea inevitably arises; that is, the idea of sovereignty, or the authority to rule. If this holy place—this sanctuary—is where God is, then God is sovereign here. God has the supreme authority over the sanctuary. Therefore, these sacred places have historically been sites of refuge for people fleeing persecution and injustice. Famously memorialized by Victor Hugo in both The Hunchback of Notre Dame (think: Quasimodo crying “Sanctuary!”) and Les Misérables (think: Jean Valjean taking refuge under Bishop Myriel), the so-called “right of sanctuary” has frequently been practiced in the nonfiction world as well. A law regulating the practice of sanctuary was codified in England under King Æthelberht of Kent in 600 AD, and the modern Sanctuary Movement draws a straight line from itself to the 1980s, when refugees fleeing violence in Central America sought asylum in congregations in the United States.
Pure and Holy
As I drove away from the Sanctuary in the Streets training in February, I kept thinking about that praise chorus from the 80s that I’ve heard and sung so many times in my 35 years of life that I practically bear personal responsibility for how cheesy and overdone it is. Still, when I think of the word “sanctuary,” it is the first thing that comes to mind—and I doubt that is unique to me. So while I drove back to Princeton, I took time to think about each line, each phrase, each petition:
During this Lenten season, while my mind is deep in the mire of this present cultural moment, I am asking God to prepare me to be a sanctuary.
Lord, prepare me.
To be a sanctuary.
Pure and holy.
Tried and true.
I’ll be a living sanctuary
I confess—I don’t think I had ever taken stock of what I was asking God to do within me, and in the light of the training I had just attended, each phrase suddenly took on a new urgency and boldness. Linking arms with strangers and walking forward into a simulation of an ICE raid, it was not hard to realize that we were embodying this prayer, declaring aloud in word and song that we are the living sanctuary of a living God. Indeed, we are God’s holy place, and because this is [tried and] true, God is the sovereign author of life—of my life and of the life of the person to whose arms I was linked, of the family’s life inside the house, and of the ICE agents doing their job. In declaring this holy place to be sanctuary, we were pledging our allegiance to this sovereign God.
During this Lenten season, while my mind is deep in the mire of this present cultural moment, I am asking God to prepare me to be a sanctuary. I am thinking of all of the young people I know—and the many more I don’t—who are living in fear that their families might be torn apart. I am thinking of all the young people I know—and the many more I don’t—who are living in fear that their lives might be cut short. And I am thinking of all of the young people I know—and the number I alone know grieves me greatly—who are in pain and in poverty and in persecution.
I am diving deep because this moment calls me out of the shallows, and I must go, linking arms with whoever will join me, asking God to prepare me. To be a sanctuary.
Megan DeWald is the Assistant Director of the Institute for Youth Ministry, where she runs the Certificate in Youth and Theology program and manages digital content. Previously, Megan served as the Site Coordinator of the PCUSA’s Young Adult Volunteer program in Nashville, Tennessee. With 15 years of youth ministry experience, Megan is passionate about cultivating leaders in the Church.