Desert Hills Lutheran Church in Green Valley is the area's only ELCA member. 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America became the country's first "sanctuary church body" this month, but what that means — if anything — for Green Valley's sole ELCA church isn't clear because its leaders aren't talking.

The denomination, which has 3.4 million members and about 9,000 congregations, made the sanctuary decision at its 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee on Aug. 7. During the assembly, church leaders participated in a march and prayer vigil at a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.

 The Rev. Deborah K. Hutterer of Phoenix, presiding bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod, said the vote has sparked debate among churches over the definition of the word sanctuary and how it should be carried out. The Grand Canyon Synod includes all ELCA churches in Arizona, St. George, Utah, and southern Nevada. Desert Hills Lutheran Church on Camino Del Sol in Green Valley is the area's only ELCA church, and the second-largest congregation in the area behind Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church.

The sanctuary vote stemmed from a March decision by the Metropolitan New York Synod to become a "sanctuary synod." New York's vote came in the wake of Central American immigrant caravans that have placed thousands of refugee-seekers in the United States. The synod is supporting them with a youth outreach at detention centers, a weekly "Jericho Walk" at a federal plaza, and by engaging in immigration-related policies, among other actions. It also is paying for asylum processing fees and has paid bonds to get migrant minors released from detention. 

Hutterer said New York's decision morphed into a larger discussion about the entire denomination becoming what it terms "a sanctuary body."

The debate since the vote has centered on the word "sanctuary," she said. For many, it evokes images of the Sanctuary movement, which aided refugees by giving them support and refuge in church buildings in the 1980s in response to restrictive immigration policies. Some of the actions of the multi-denominational movement violated the law, a step that is not condoned in the ELCA decision or by those helping the latest waves of refugees.  

"Some people were alarmed just by using the word sanctuary," Hutterer said. "What we finally decided in the simplest form is what being a sanctuary denomination means is that we’re publicly declaring that we will walk along with immigrants and refugees as a matter of faith. That it really is just what we preach on Sundays and what we’re living out on Monday morning, Tuesday morning, Wednesday, that we’re using our hands and voices."

Each congregation will decide how much or how little they want to help refugees and immigrants, she said. 

"No one’s mandating congregations do anything, but we encourage them to look at ways it makes sense for them to be engaged," she said. "That might be by providing safe shelter, it could be it’s about conversations about immigration, it could be advocacy and writing letters. Or any number of things, collecting in-kind donations and supplies and distributing to those in need."

She said she doesn't know what decisions have been made at Desert Hills Lutheran. 

Pastor Martin Overson did not return several phone calls seeking comment, and two of the five foundation board members — Judy Gunson and Geri Beal — declined to comment. Foundation board member Neal Engbloom said he hadn't heard about the vote but suspected it wouldn't have an impact on the church. He said members might be aiding immigrants and refugees on their own but the church as a whole is not. Attempts to reach board members Dave Carver and Ray Weisgarber were unsuccessful.

Hutterer said there are people who believe the church should remain apolitical, but noted the ELCA has long been active in helping immigrants and refugees, and on other social issues such as hunger and poverty.

"From the very beginning, the Lutheran Church has always identified with the poor and vulnerable," she said.

One ELCA church in Phoenix is providing shelter to migrants, and several others are collecting donations, she said. One church has partnered with an Episcopal church in Mexico to bring supplies to refugees waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. 

Herb Chilstrom of Sahuarita served as the first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA when three Lutheran denominations combined to form the group in 1988. He was not surprised by the recent vote.

"The biblical mandate is very clear in both the New Testament and the Old Testament that we should welcome the stranger and take care of them," he said. "This is very much in keeping with that tradition through the years."

He attends Desert Hills Lutheran but doesn't know what actions the leadership will take, "but I can't imagine why they wouldn't in some way work to welcome the stranger," he said.

Larry Kempton has been a Desert Hills member for more than 10 years. He acknowledged the topic is divisive and, despite the national vote, doesn't see the church changing its policies.

"There are some members who would just as soon open the doors to everyone and there are others who believe that if they're here illegally it's not our responsibility," he said. "Our senior pastor is very non-confrontational and I doubt we'll be taking any specific actions or having any discussions."

Kim Smith | 520-547-9740

Assistant Editor Kim Smith moved to Arizona from Michigan when she was 16. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism in 1989. She has worked at seven newspapers of varying size in Arizona, Texas and Nevada.