March 5th – Steve Jungkeit
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Numbers 35: 9-15; Psalm 27: 1-5, 14; Matthew 11: 28-30
March 5, 2017
Our Sanctuary Is Your Sanctuary, Part III: Steal Away
“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here.” That’s how the old spiritual puts it. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That’s how Jesus puts it. My words today shall revolve around those two statements, separated by centuries, but united by a dream of rest. Steal away, the song says. Come to me, Jesus says.
Consider the song first. It’s a spiritual that’s appeared in hymnals for well over a hundred years, capturing the ways each of us as human beings occasionally find ourselves longing to slip away toward Jesus. In the song, Jesus becomes a figure who represents one of the most basic needs that humans experience, which is that of safety and embrace. When troubles mount, when slings and arrows are fired in our direction, we long for a place of retreat, where we’ll be affirmed without judgment, where we’ll feel nourished and upheld. When our struggles seem too much to bear, we need a place or a person in our lives which will, or who will, strengthen our fundamental sense of being, of well-being. When it seems as though our lives have little value, and that we’re in danger of being discarded, or worse yet, forgotten entirely, we need a person or a place toward which we can steal away, knowing that in that sacred zone, our bodies, our infirmities, our frailties, our failures, all of it, will be looked upon with understanding, and with a gracious embrace. Sometimes we need to steal away to Jesus.
Have you ever needed to steal away? Have you ever needed a place or a person or a group of people to hold you up and to embrace you in a trying moment? Where did you turn when that happened? Who or what became your consolation, your assurance that come what may you would be OK? As children, it’s often a nook in a corner that functions as that sort of space – it becomes a kind of enclosed shelter. But in human terms it’s often the presence of a grandparent or an adult friend who somehow supplements the care that parents give. But it’s no less a need for adults. Where or who do you turn to for succor, for support, for sanctuary? What I wish to affirm for you is this: wherever you have found that support, wherever you found a place or person of nurture, no matter with whom or where, no matter how unlikely it might seem, Jesus is present. Wherever you have been allowed to flourish; wherever you have experienced grace; wherever your spirit has somehow been lifted up; whenever you have felt affirmed in the fullness of your being, Jesus is there.
I don’t know about you, but there have been moments in my life when I’ve needed to steal away to Jesus. I think in particular of the year I spent working as a hospital chaplain, witnessing a fresh human misery on a daily, and sometimes on an hourly basis. It was one of the hardest years of my adult life. Rather than accepting a temporary academic job in Pennsylvania, I felt the need to get out of my head for a while, and working in a hospital struck me as a helpful way to do just that. The hours were long, the pay was miniscule, the emotional toll was severe, and I soon wondered if I had made a huge mistake.
One Saturday in October, I was the chaplain on duty overnight. At about 3 in the morning, a young man in his early twenties was wheeled into the emergency room. Over the course of the next 6 months, the young man became a friend, as I talked with him in the hospital burn unit. His name was Will. But on that fateful night in late October, he had somehow become trapped in a burning car, and his whole body was charred from the flames. I’ll never forget the smell that hung in the air of the ER that night. It took hours to clear it from my nostrils. I’ll never forget the doctors who nearly wretched when they cut the remains of Will’s clothing away. And I’ll never forget sitting with Will’s family that night, seeing how scared they were, and trying to help them reckon with what had happened.
By the time the night ended, I was exhausted, and shaken by all that I had seen. I drove home, and thought about going to bed, but I was too unnerved to sleep. And so I went to church with Rachael and with Sabina and Elsa. I can freely admit that there were some Sundays that I felt pretty indifferent to church, because of how routinized it could often feel. On that Sunday, though, it felt like stealing away to Jesus. In that congregation, we had a moment where we passed the peace, saying to one another, “The peace of Christ be with you.” The response would be: “And also with you.” When it came time to pass the peace, I could only say it once. After that the tears began to flow, and I just sat down. Because those were precisely the words I needed to hear. That was precisely the place I needed to be. And those were the people I needed to be with. I felt the presence of Jesus that morning among those good and flawed people. After that terrible night, I needed to steal away, and I can tell you that Jesus found me there in those pews. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, Jesus says, and I will give you rest.”
But there’s another dimension of the hymn “Steal Away” that is all important. The spirituals always have at least two meanings – one having to do with the inner life, akin to what I experienced that Sunday morning in New Haven, and the other working as a coded system of communication among slaves concerning escapes, uprisings, and other events too dangerous to name in direct language. In this case, to steal away to Jesus meant slipping away toward the north, toward literal enclaves of freedom and autonomy that an enslaved population could only dream about. Jesus, still a symbol of all that would allow human beings to flourish, would be incarnated there, in those enclaves, among those who protected the runaways. You may have noticed at the bottom of the page, among the credits offered for the hymn “Steal Away,” that it was a song sung on the night of Nat Turner’s uprising in Virginia in the early 19th century. To steal away to Jesus, in that sense, was to assert one’s humanity and value forcefully against a system that devalued and degraded such humanity. In the spirituals, the name “Jesus,” becomes synonymous with whatever, whomever, and wherever the dignity of human life is upheld, wherever an easing of burdens is found, wherever rest is provided.
That sense of stealing away was captured beautifully in a recent novel from Colson Whitehead called The Underground Railroad, a book I hope everyone spends time reading. It offers a vivid reconstruction of the sadism at the heart of 19th century America, reminiscent of the slave narratives of Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs. But it also tells the story of Cora and her escape from a Georgia plantation on the Underground Railroad, imagined not simply as a network of furtive abolitionists, but as a literal railroad beneath the earth, crisscrossing the South, and guiding its riders to safety. The novel functions as a travelogue for Cora, who “steals away” time and again, first to a city in South Carolina which seems to provide the conditions for flourishing human lives. That sense of flourishing is upended when she discovers that the city uses black bodies to conduct medical experiments. She travels to North Carolina where she becomes stranded in a conflicted abolitionist’s attic, and then finds her way to Tennessee, the site of what seems to be an apocalyptic plague. Finally she finds herself in an isolated black commune in Indiana, where she briefly thrives. But that too is destroyed by mistrustful whites. And so she steals away once more, this time reaching the northern terminus of the railroad, presumably in Canada. Cora stumbles out of a tunnel, famished and dazed, and she soon discovers a road. Eventually, a wagon guided by a black man taking his family toward the West rolls by, and the family, wary but receptive, invites her to join them. The final scene of the novel finds Cora sharing a meal with the family, as they all continue to “steal away” toward those places and communities where Jesus might be found, however such places are finally named. That concluding image conveys that it may not be a place, finally, that can provide a lasting scene of safety and embrace. Places can become temporary shelters. But it’s people who ultimately provide the sense of sanctuary and rest that each and every human being requires, and deserves.
“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,” the song goes. “Come to me, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. Generations of people have been doing the same ever since Jesus spoke those words, ever since the Underground Railroad operated. They come overland from Central and South America because of the crushing poverty they’ve experienced, or because of wars being fought in their region. They come by plane and ship from the Middle East or from Africa, fleeing persecution and violence. They come from far flung places, the way each of our ancestors did. My own ancestors arrived from a German speaking part of Prussia in the early 20th century, a region that now falls in Russian territory. They came for religious reasons, stealing away toward some imagined community that would incarnate the spirit of Jesus for them. Their path brought them first through Canada, and then they dipped down into North Dakota. That’s where my grandfather was born. Soon after, the winters proved too fearsome, and so they found their way to the orange groves of Southern California, where my dad was born, and, about thirty years later, where I was born. Someone within each of our families has put those words into practice: steal away, steal away. Stealing away because we are heavy laden is a part of our narrative too.
Many of us have been alarmed and appalled by the rhetoric surrounding immigrants during the election cycle, rhetoric that is now being enacted in policy. Talk of building a wall between the US and Mexico, a travel ban on residents of several predominantly Muslim countries, an attempt to suspend the refugee program, increased raids against immigrant communities, and a climate of fear that can only be termed “domestic terrorism” for the dread and foreboding that has swept through immigrant communities across the country – all of this has left many of us wondering how such heartlessness has come to thrive around us. And it’s left many of us wondering what it means to be a Christian here, now, in the midst of so much callous disregard for human life. Where is Jesus now, and how is it still possible to steal away toward Jesus?
Here’s one way: last week you affirmed the move to purchase a house to be used for refugee resettlement in perpetuity, trusting in faith that such opportunities can and will still be granted. I was immensely proud of our community after last week’s vote, and I want to tell you how grateful I remain to be a part of a place such as this. You continually help to renew my own faith – in humanity, but also in Jesus. I want you to know that.
But I also want to tell you about another acute need that has arisen. A few weeks ago, we conducted a simple experiment around here, with startling results. I had been wondering how many of the folks that show up in our church on Saturday mornings for our food pantry might have concerns about their immigration status, or about that of someone they know and love. And so Paul Chapman, one of our members, put together a questionnaire that could be filled out anonymously. And it asked just a few simple questions. Are you concerned about your immigration status right now? If so, how concerned, on a scale from “very” to “moderately” to “a little.” And then, would it be helpful to speak to an attorney? We conducted that experiment because I imagined there would be a handful of people passing through our doors who might need advice or help. But I didn’t imagine the scale. Fifty people filled out the questionnaire, some responding in English and some in Spanish. Of those fifty, every single one responded that they were very concerned. Of those, some thirty responded that they would like to speak with someone with legal expertise. That was one Saturday, with one representative sample of people who show up at our Food Pantry. Whether we realize it or not, those are members of this community every bit as much as those of us who show up for worship on Sunday mornings.
I shared that story this past Tuesday when our Board of Deacons met, and we had a long conversation about how to respond not only to the challenges confronting those who come to the Food Pantry, but how to provide an ethical and faithful response in the face of the assaults on the dignity and humanity of immigrants under the new administration. Our Deacons represent a variety of political persuasions, but there was unanimity around the table that to be faithful right now requires a commitment to caring for the most vulnerable in our midst. And there was unanimity around the notion that the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme should understand itself in more than a casual way as a sanctuary for those who might need such a sanctuary. There was unanimity around the notion that we should be those among whom Jesus can be found. Let me say a few words about what we understand all of that to mean, and what we don’t understand it to mean.
First, it might mean opening ourselves to providing a space of hospitality should someone threatened with deportation need such a space. It might mean allowing individuals or families to dwell within these walls for a time, in order to slow down an overly aggressive or hasty deportation process. That’s what happened among a number of faith communities in the 1980’s, when refugees from El Salvador and Nicaragua were threatened with deportation, an action that would have had life threatening consequences. Those refugees lived within the walls of various faith communities, and the authorities respected the autonomy of those communities, which were, quite literally, practicing their vocation by providing sanctuary to those individuals. They were fulfilling the original meaning of that word, “sanctuary,” which traces its roots back to the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Numbers, Moses is instructed by God to establish cities of sanctuary where individuals could flee should they be in need of protection. Monasteries and other religious communities continued to fulfill that vocation for hundreds of years, and in the 1980s, churches here in the United States drew on that legacy when they offered protection to those under threat of deportation. And that’s a possibility that some religious communities are now exploring. We know that one woman in Colorado is currently living in a church, because so far, police and ICE agents are reluctant to enter a house of worship to detain someone. It’s relatively rare for people to take up residence in a church for these purposes, and it’s unlikely that we would ever be asked. But should it occur, you need to know that the Board of Deacons has discussed it, and has signaled their willingness to explore that option. You also need to know that neither the ministers nor the Board would be breaking the law – should it ever come to pass, it’s incumbent upon us to be forthright and transparent about our actions, and to reach an agreement with the authorities. In other words, this couldn’t be an underground effort aimed at concealment. Instead, it would be an effort to let the full array of legal resources be tapped prior to any precipitous actions by immigration authorities.
That’s one possibility, and a very, very unlikely one. As with Colson Whitehead’s novel, for many right now safety won’t be found in a particular place, at least not for long. At present, the fullest meaning of sanctuary will be discovered in a different form, which is to say, in the ways that individuals and communities organize to support those who are feeling threatened. It’s the act of accompaniment, of being with, that will provide the greatest sense of security. And I think that’s a far more likely way that we can be of use in this moment. We’ve learned that having someone be present as an observer and friend during a court hearing or summons makes it far less likely that the individual in question will be detained, or deported. We’ve heard stories suggesting that the presence of a friend or companion, especially (and I’m sorry to report this) if they’re white, makes it far more likely that the individual in question will be released quickly.
We won’t need this yet, but soon, I’ll ask for volunteers to sign up, so that we have a list of individuals who would be willing to serve as sanctuary liasons, those who accompany and journey with, those who offer themselves as sanctuaries. The time may well come when we’re asked to do just that, to accompany those who are walking through hell. But what we need right now is a small of group of lawyers willing to do some pro bono work on Saturday mornings, offering free legal counsel to those who could use it. If you have those skills, or if you have contacts with those who do, please let me know, or let Carleen know, or let Lina Tuck know – Lina has agreed to help organize our efforts. But even if none of this ever comes to pass for us, even if we’re never asked to house someone, or to accompany someone, the ministers believe, and our Board of Deacons believes, that it’s important for us to openly declare ourselves a space of sanctuary, which, I hasten to add, we already are, simply by being a house of worship. That declaration can help to establish a moral and ethical norm, where institutions and communities like this one become sites of safety, protection, embrace, and yes, sanctuary.
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” At some point in each of our lives, we’ve experienced some form of sanctuary, where we’ve felt held and protected amidst forces that would undo us. At some time or place, we’ve all experienced that sense of healing enclosure, whether in a place or, more likely, among people. Whenever we do, no matter where or with whom, I believe that Jesus is present. And it’s that experience of finding peace within the clamor that will enable us to provide the same to others, whether in a dramatic way, or in a way far smaller.
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. May we become those among whom Jesus can be found.