I have served as campus rabbi at Ursinus College for just four months but I already have been fortunate to work with lots of incredible students committed to repairing the world. Some of them have connected their passion for social justice and/or service to their religious traditions, but usually only to the extent that they have found religious teachings that support their convictions. I want them to seriously consider finding a deeper connection, perhaps using spiritual tools (e.g., study of sacred texts, meditation, prayer) in their activism/service or pursuing their cause through their membership in a religious community. I don’t want this because I think religion is good for its own sake, but because I have come to believe that religion has something crucial to contribute to the effort to repair the world. Believing this and successfully articulating it are two very different things, though. My attempts so far have suffered from a lack of concreteness—I need to offer real examples—and immediacy—those examples should ideally be more recent than the Civil Rights Movement.
This past Tuesday, though, I think I gained some immediate and concrete clarity when my family and I showed up outside West Kensington Ministry in North Philadelphia for the press conference and ritual marking the entrance into Sanctuary of Angela, a brave immigrant, and her family. Angela has a final deportation order but is publicly defying it by taking Sanctuary—i.e., taking up residence—in the church. The New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which claims 13 Jewish and Christian member congregations, organized this act of civil disobedience, the ninth of its kind nationally, part of an effort to escalate the pressure on President Obama to finally keep his promise to provide immigrants with some relief.
Tuesday morning was frigid and windy, and by the time the press conference was over and we turned and filed into the church, I think everyone, not just Angela, considered it a sanctuary. Physically experiencing a hint of sanctuary myself was the seed that grew into my personal revelation as to a vital role religious communities can play in the effort to repair the world.
Places of worship providing sanctuary to persecuted people, and religious communities defying immoral laws, are an ancient tradition. This tradition is already present in the Hebrew Bible in the designation of cities of refuge (Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 4, Joshua 20), cities to which a person who unintentionally killed another could flee and be protected from the honor killing to which relatives of the victim are entitled.
The religious community that called for the creation of cities of refuge was resisting the law of honor killings and protecting the would-be victims of this unjust law. Two factors made it possible for them to do so: 1) their robust independent moral tradition grounded in a vision of ultimate reality which declared bankrupt the prevailing morality that legitimated honor killings, and 2) their command of enough power (organized people and/or money) to make their morality a reality.
Religious communities today can still cultivate, refine and act on a moral tradition that requires them to defy unjust laws and envision a better future and mobilize the resources to begin building that future. Indeed, this is exactly what offering Sanctuary does. The results can be incredibly powerful—President Obama just announced executive action that could provide relief to millions of undocumented immigrants.
So I see in sanctuary one example of the unique and powerful way that religious traditions and communities can contribute to the effort to repair the world and I look forward to discussing this with the students I serve and hearing what they think.
Michael Ramberg serves as Campus Rabbi and Hillel Director at Ursinus College, does community engagement work for ThirdPath Institute and works as a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he received his rabbinic ordination in 2012. Michael and his partner equally share the parenting of their 2 children, ages 4 and 1.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.