Last week, the Churchwide Assembly voted to designate the ELCA a “sanctuary denomination”. All across our church, we are working together to answer Martin Luther’s Small Catechism question, “What does this mean?

Our church is trying to be faithful. Becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. This designation is a declaration that the ELCA is taking action in response to Jesus’ commandment to welcome and love our neighbor and keep with scripture that states, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34). 

The ELCA’s designation as a “sanctuary denomination” means that our church will continue to support refugees as they are resettled in the U.S. through our partnership with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, provide legal assistance to immigrants pursuing their legally-protected right to seek asylum, and ensuring that undocumented immigrants are aware of their rights under U.S. law. Moreover, the ELCA will continue to advocate for just and humane treatment of detained immigrants, including calling for adequate housing at detainment centers and accompanying minors through immigration court as part of the ELCA’s AMMPARO program.

Being a sanctuary denomination will look different in different contexts. It may mean providing space for people to live; providing financial and legal support to those who are working through the immigration system; or supporting other congregations and service providers. We cannot mandate or direct our congregations and ministries to respond in specific ways. Each must work out what this means for them in their context.  

These are long-standing ELCA practices. Except for our members whose ancestors were here before European settlement or others who were forced to come to the U.S. against their will, the ELCA is an immigrant church. After World War II, one in six Lutherans was either displaced or a refugee. Our denomination has long been committed to the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger. We do so in the belief that what we do unto the least of these, our sisters and brothers, we do unto Christ himself. Our decades-long work with immigrants and refugees is one of the ways we practice our faith in the world. Lutherans started Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S. and the Churchwide Assembly’s actions re-commit us to this long tradition.

If you are interested in working with or on behalf of refugees and immigrants, please contact the Synod Office and we will help to connect you to ministry opportunities. To learn more about the ELCA’s AMMPARO program, visit

Peace be with you!

The Rev. Craig Alan Satterlee, Ph.D., Bishop