by the Very Rev. Bill Terry, rector of St. Anna’s Episcopal Church
St. Anna’s Church has long had a reputation of being located in a kind of hardscrabble part of town. The fact is St. Anna’s is a bit odd. But then again so are the people that are drawn to St. Anna’s. Not in a bad way just in a way that really expresses life’s variety. It is by all definitions “an urban inner city church” and as such mission presents itself in different ways than other churches and locations.
Part of that urban harvest field is to provide ministry to folks that “live on the margins”, that is, that don’t generally find themselves in mainstream America. We at St. Anna’s, I suppose, are atypical Episcopalians – not all of us but many of us. Perhaps we are a little more vested in politics than the average church because politics, I believe, have a greater impact on those that are not insulated by safe neighborhoods, reasonable incomes, job prospects, or educational opportunities. So, many of us blow where-so-ever public policy takes us. That is not to say that there aren’t insecurities abounding but it is to say that they are acute in our fringy part of town.
Apart from the dozens of biblical admonitions about how we should treat strangers in a foreign land or to show hospitality to the traveler we, at St. Anna’s, live being strangers in a foreign land or at least some of us do. We experience some of what a migrant fleeing from some sort of violence might experience. So, we stand in solidarity with them and we, as a church, get a little involved in politics. We are not what some might believe us to be, “a trendy liberal church.” We are what we are because we experience or sit next to folks that experience some of the harshness of our community. We sit next to all sort of folk because our doors are open and they remarkably come in. Some even stay.
With this in mind, we offer SANCTUARY to migrants who are caught in the middle of our political discourse (or bickering). We offer SANCTUARY for families that need to be safe from deportation and/or broken up. We offer SANCTUARY to transgender folk, black folk, and all folk who need a safe place to be and to pray and to be cared for. We do not do this because it is trendy or liberal or any of that other stuff we do it because we understand and some of us have experienced a kindred life to migrants. Is it un-American? Is it disobeying the law? Is it putting good local folk out of work? Those questions obviate and avoid the immediacy of our vision of mission.
We once were called to support a family that was in real fear. I am sure we have all experienced real fear howsoever it presented itself. It is one of the worst feelings one can have. The father, it was alleged, had not paid a parking ticket – a parking ticket. So, he was subject to deportation or at least the risk of same. He and his wife have run a very successful business in the Quarter for several years. They pay their taxes on time and otherwise follow all of the rules. The wife is a citizen. They have two sons in their early teens (both U.S. born). Both are about to enter Brother Martin. Mom and Dad will pay their tuition. They cut their grass, tend their gardens, maintain their modest home and employ at least three other people (all citizens) in their modest arts business. They lived in fear. They simply asked us to go to INS for their monthly check-in and to walk out of INS so that ICE might not grab them up. So we did and we did so because we are a SANCTUARY Church and that is what such places do.
For about five years St. Anna’s ran one of the largest English as a Second Language Schools in the city. It was just after Katrina. We taught survival English to migrant workers that helped to rebuild the city. In my view, they did not displace local workers and were more honest than so many charlatans that came out of the hills to run scams on locals (those charlatans being citizens). At first, it was all men. Then slowly we populated our school with wives and mothers. Soon, we became a “community center” of sorts. I ate some pretty fine Latin food. There is nothing more delicious than Central American tamales I can tell you that! The point is I got to know these people pretty well.
The school was so happy with what we were doing, including some advocating for them, that they renamed themselves “Casa de Oportunidades NOLA” meaning House of Opportunity. They came, after a very hard day’s work, clean, washed up, dressed for school and ready and even excited to learn. They found a home and sanctuary BEFORE the more contemporary SANCTUARY Movement started in NOLA. The law worked against them (Immigration Laws) and it was dangerous in their home countries. So “illegal” immigration in the face of hometown danger and post-disaster opportunity was their lot.
Have you ever fled danger? I did when I had a family to raise. I moved out of NOLA in the 1980’s when we were murdering about 400 people per year and schools were as bad or worse than now. So, I and my VA Loan with family moved to Slidell. We were fleeing danger and fear. So, yes I know what it is like – well at least a little bit. But I fled to a safer place for my kids. A lifelong resident of Carrollton I fled.
I have, since coming to St. Anna’s, come to learn that getting to know and to listen to people is critical in being the priest that Christ has called me to be. Not because I am conservative or liberal (I am both) but because in so doing I begin to fear less and understand more. I am praxis driven, my favorite Saint is in many ways St. James because he was praxis driven. I want people to be safe, to be loved, to unload guilt and burdens, to find a place of welcome. I so often do not live up to that “want” but to know someone really is to be less afraid and much more tolerant and even accepting of who they are is what I strive for (praxis). Oportunidades gave me the chance become familiar with and enjoy being with Latinos; being at St. Anna’s gives me the chance to get to know those unlike me in abundance. That is why, among other reasons, I endorse our status as a SANCTUARY CHURCH because I am less afraid and more hopeful.
At this time we persist in our hope to provide a safe place for people to raise their children and to find peace. At this time we persist in offering not only hospitality but safety from laws that seem to divide families and that place people in the way of poverty, prosecution, deportation and ultimately fear and longing. That is what it means to be a SANCTUARY CHURCH for us. Simply, a house of worship that has room and a spirit that says, “Brother – Sister you are welcomed in this place and we will surround you so that you may be safe.”