Living Sanctuary: 40 Days in the Wilderness
by Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager
“Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these,
who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.40)
After another boisterous community meal in our church hall last night, I waved goodbye to Malik, Zahida and their five year old daughter, Roniya, as they walked downstairs. Stepping outside into the cool, spring night, I shivered with the injustice of their stolen freedom. I get to go home. They cannot, without the threat of deportation.
For over 40 days and nights Malik Naveed bin Rehman and Zahida Altaf have lived in sanctuary at my church. This holy family awaits the outcome of their legal case working its way through a lengthy appeals process.
Originally from Pakistan, bin Rehman and Altaf have made New Britain their home for nearly twenty years. They own The Pizza Corner in town and are known by the locals for their hospitality-- and for their great chicken tikka pizza. At a recent church fundraiser for the family, bin Rehman and Altaf were elbow deep into dough making thirty pizzas with a host of volunteers.
Together, we’ve been like the disciples waiting in the Upper Room fearful of what may happen next and yet, comforted by being together in loving community.
Our church voted last December to become a Sanctuary Church. Currently, we are one of only a handful of churches in Connecticut who have made this commitment. As the list of families at unfair risk of deportation grows, many more houses of worship are considering this avenue of prophetic ministry. And not a moment too soon as the list of unfair and inhumane deportations increase by the day.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we remember that “always we must welcome the stranger for surely we are entertaining angels unaware.” (13.2) Offering sanctuary is our sacred responsibility grounded in the biblical ethics and gospel values of neighbor love. We endeavor each day to be worthy of these friendships entrusted to us.
On a recent afternoon, I joined my new friends for a lunch of beef biryani and fresh naan in the makeshift basement kitchen. We looked over their activity schedule for the week. Yoga, pottery, needlepoint and a music session were among the activities planned to fill the hard hours. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the ankle bracelet on Malik’s leg. It’s thick plastic ring a haunting reminder of their ongoing persecution. The GPS tracker not only monitors bin Rehman’s exact location but also gives Immigration officials the invasive capability to hear everything being said.
Forty days in the wilderness and in this time of sanctuary, it’s hard to say who is benefiting more. As a community of faith we are rediscovering what the theology of accompaniment truly means. We are remembering the call of discipleship and the abiding gift of friendship found in a dark world. We are being invited into relationship into the heartbeat of a God who comes as One of us. Let us keep choosing to be the kindom of God for one another.
Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager is the Associate Pastor at The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.
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