An Extraordinary Time to Be the Church

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Almost 50 years ago in 1971, University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley, where I serve as pastor, declared itself to be a “sanctuary” during the Vietnam War for conscientious objector sailors on board the USS Coral Sea aircraft carrier anchored in the San Francisco Bay. The following month, the City Council of Berkeley took action and declared Berkeley to be a “sanctuary” for these sailors, becoming the first municipality in the country to identify itself in this way.


There was no law or official statue in 1971 that authorized either the city of Berkeley or the congregation of the Chapel to act in solidarity with conscientious objectors or to create zones of “sanctuary.” There was only a bit of courage and determination to act for an alternative vision of living together in the world that valued conscience, respected individual agency, and prioritized human dignity.


There is a decades-long link that connects these original actions at the Chapel and the city of Berkeley in 1971 to contemporary declarations of “sanctuary” across the country and within our church. The response of this summer’s ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee to the current hostility against asylum-seeking refugees was to declare the whole church to be in solidarity as a “sanctuary denomination.” Once again, there are no rules permitting such solidarity; indeed, there are federal laws against aiding and assisting undocumented migrants. But our church found the courage it needed to stand in solidary from a deeply held, faith-rooted vision for an alternative way of living together in the world that values conscience, dignity, and basic human rights; a way we see reflected in Gospel.


As well, at this same Churchwide Assembly, we celebrated the 10thyear anniversary of the dismantling of the church’s policies of discrimination against lgbtqia+ people. Again, there is a decades-long link connecting this dismantling and our illegal, illicit, and extraordinary ordinations 30 years ago at St. Paulus church in San Francisco, when I was ordained with Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart in spite of ELCA policy. A time when ELCA rostered and lay leaders and congregations summoned faith-rooted courage and promoted an alternative vision for the being church together — risking their own careers and reputations to stand alongside us. Pastors like the Revs. Charles Lewis, Lucy Kolin, Jack Schiemann, Ross Merkel, John Frykmann, James Delange, and hundreds of others, who pledged solidarity and subjected themselves to denominational hostility and compliance-based-pressure because of their resistance to the ELCA’s hastily created policies of discrimination that destroyed faith, disrespected our relationships, and fueled church-sponsored hostility toward lgbtqia+ people.


ELM and PROCLAIM are heirs and beneficiaries to the provocative resistance and courageous solidarity of those who refused to follow unjust rules, to submit to anxious church authorities, and to implement faith destroying policies. Together with this cloud of witnesses — allies, accomplices, advocates, and activists — we provoked into being an alternative way of being church in the world centered in sanctuary, resistance, non-compliance with injustice, and solidarity with the oppressed.


Sanctuary was a way to stand in solidarity with war resisters in the early 1970’s. It is a powerful and provocative frame for accompaniment with refugees and migrants terrorized in today’s context by our government’s brutal and inhumane immigration, asylum, and detention policies. And it was and continues to be a life-saving form of resistance and liberation with lgbtqia+ people during the era of ELCA sponsored hostility and oppression, and especially as we provoke the church again to respect us more deeply and the gifts we offer for ministry, and to honor the diversity and multiplicity of relationship models and covenants that are intrinsic to and held in high esteem within our community.

Pastor Jeff was ordained in 1990 and is the fourth pastor to serve University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley, the Lutheran Campus Ministry at CAL. He is a member of the Boards for SHARE El Salvador, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, and the LuMin Network for ELCA Campus Ministries; on the Steering Committee for the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy; a member of the East Bay Interfaith Immigration Coalition, and serves on the Spiritual Care Team at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.  Prior to his ministry at the Chapel, Pr. Jeff was the pastor of First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco’s Richmond District. He was married in 2014 and lives in Oakland’s Piedmont District in a 1920’s stucco bungalow with his husband, J Guadalupe (Pepe) Sánchez Aldaco. He enjoys working around the house, mystery novels, watching movies, genealogy, cooking and dinner parties, visiting family, studying Spanish, playing piano, and salsa dancing.

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