This dissertation argues that sanctuary is a pillar of ecclesial identity and a concretization of what it means to be a church of the poor in the United States. As persons once again flee El Salvador and other Central American countries where unbearable levels of violence have essentially created a low-intensity war akin to the 1980s, the church in the United States is faced with the challenge of protecting the humanity of “unauthorized” communities seeking refuge from governmental structures that kill through persecution and deportation. Throughout history as well as in contemporary politics, sanctuary’s capacity to interrupt and resist processes of legalized violence has made it a contentious concept and practice. Among communities of faith the possibility of providing church sanctuary can become a point of controversy and division rather than unity. Within the Roman Catholic Church there is a critical need to better understand the theological foundations of sanctuary and the ways that it incarnates the nature and mission of the church as a sacrament of salvation in and for the world so that bishops and laity alike can appropriately discern their participation, or the cost of failing to protect the displaced and persecuted poor in their midst.
In response to the arrival of displaced Salvadorans in the 1980s, church sanctuary became a widespread practice that raised questions about the church itself, its responsibility to protect, and sanctuary’s potential to transform political systems and construct a more human society. This historical and political context becomes the foundation for a systematic theological reflection where I retrieve ancient traditions of refuge and sanctuary and place them in dialogue with the ecclesiology of Vatican II; analyze the sacramentality of the poor in Oscar Romero’s preaching and witness in relation to the vision of a church of the poor as expressed at the Medellin conference; and develop four categories that constitute church as sanctuary: refuge, healing, holiness, and salvation. In a world marred by dehumanizing violence, sanctuary is a necessary mark of ecclesial existence, for it is a salvific practice not only for those whose life is threatened but for the church itself.