Sanctuary Cities

A Sanctuary City

People seeking out a sanctuary city is not a new phenomenon. What I am about to describe may sound like what’s currently unfolding for undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and migrants today in the USA, but this blog is about the plight of a small group of English people in the late 1500s and early 1600s. The Separatists’ political and religious beliefs clashed with the dominate culture of their era. The clash escalated until government officials started prowling around searching for them. When they found them, they locked them up and/or fined them.

They realized that if they didn’t leave they might be tortured and executed as traitors. Most had witnessed that happening to others. They left the country they loved to seek out a sanctuary city – a place where they could gather and worship in peace. They found it in Leiden, Holland when they emigrated there in 1608 as a congregation of around a hundred people. At first, they didn’t speak the language. Their work skills weren’t of much use in their new sanctuary city, so they took whatever menial job they could find. They brought with them only the most basic things – their clothes, a few household things, and a few reminders of a place they loved and would probably never see again. They were desperate refugees.

Foreigners and Strangers on Earth

A similar story is recorded in Hebrews 11:1-16 about a group of ancient people in the Middle East. The most relevant verses are verses 13 – 16, which I’ve edited some so as to apply it to the situation of the 17th Century English refuges:

All these people were living by faith when they emigrated from the land they loved. At first, they did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. They were looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left behind, they would have returned to it. Instead, they were longing for a better place—a place where they would be free. 

A Dangerous Voyage

The Separatist refugees stayed in their sanctuary city of Leiden until 1620. Then came an opportunity to establish their own sanctuary community in a new place – thousands of miles across the ocean. Today we call them Pilgrims and the place they settled Plymouth, MA.

After their perilous voyage on the small wooden Mayflower, they set to work setting up their new colony. First, they worked out the wording of the Mayflower Compact and had all the men in the group sign it. They knew they needed some form of governance and structure. Though the men sought to be free, they had not yet evolved in their understanding of freedom to include the women in the process. That would come later – much later and with great resistance.

Next, they built a Common House. Some lived there while they build the first seven homes; others remained on the ship. Though they had little food and many suffered great sickness; they persevered. Bit by bit they built their homes and prepared their gardens.

Meet the Neighbors

As the spring sun thawed the snow, they planted the seeds they brought or found stored by people who had previously lived where they were building their Plymouth Plantation.

Samoset, an Abenaki Native dignitary (Sagamore) approached them and greeted them in their own language: “Welcome! Welcome, Englishmen.” That was their first face-to-face encounter with someone who already lived where they’d come for safety and freedom. I’ll write more about Samoset in a future blog.

The people already established in this great continent started their first conversation with desperate asylum seekers by greeting them, in their own language, with a word of welcome.

“Welcome! Welcome, Englishmen.”

Not “Who are you?” Not “What are YOU doing in OUR land?” Not “Go back where you came from!” Not, “Show me your papers.”

None of that. Instead, the first words the new immigrants heard were, “Welcome!”

Finding Common Ground

On the surface it appeared these two groups had absolutely nothing in common. They spoke different languages, dressed very differently, and had different understandings about the Creator of this great continent. Their life styles were also very different. It seemed everything between them was different, different, different. And yet, a representative of the dominant culture greeted them with words of welcome, in their own language.

Shortly after that first encounter, they worked out a treaty, mostly out of mutual desperation around the circumstances in which each group found itself. The treaty served both cultures well – for a while. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long.

Within a generation the newcomers were slaughtering the old-timers. Within a few decades the new immigrants completely reshaped the landscape of what we know today as the USA. The hostility toward the first inhabitants of this land continues to the present moment and has now spilled over to others who come seeking help and hope in a new place. The hostility festers into angry backlashes against those who come seeking their own 21st Century sanctuary from the troubles in their countries of origin.

Learning from the Past

How much better off we’d all be today if those us who are already here would assist modern immigrants, migrants, and asylum seekers the way Samoset greeted the strange looking English refugees he met 400 years ago. If only we could remember how our ancestors were welcomed and play that forward. Then we would truly be a great society. If only.

Before I could get this blog posted I learned that my denomination – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – recently voted to become a sanctuary denomination. I’m not yet sure exactly what that means, but I think it means we’ve decide to do what we can to welcome newcomers with the same kindness and hospitality the Natives showed the desperate Pilgrims once upon a time 400 years ago.

If you’re curious about what the ECLA recently voted to do you can read more about it at Sanctuary Churches.

Thank you for taking time to read about these 17th Century immigrants. I hope you found it interesting and inspiring. If you got this from a friend, you can have your very own subscription by signing up at up at HowWiseThen. I’m currently giving tips for recognizing and coping with dementia in memory and honor of my older brother who passed away recently after struggling with dementia issues for several years.



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