Union matters! podcast: God and the sanctuary movement


Lana Heath de Martinez, a 2016 graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary, can, without a moment’s hesitation, name two professors who helped her to define her calling as a “faith-based activist.”

Those individuals, Dr. Carson Brisson and the late Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, were, for her, early lights for navigating a world where Christian faith can require resistance to society’s laws.

Dr. Cannon is described in an August 14, 2018, New York Times obituary as a groundbreaking scholar and “a foundational voice in womanist theology.” De Martinez remembers with gratitude that Dr. Cannon provided her with “a theological and ethical analysis of the world we live in.

“It has been a framework for the activism I already believed in and held in my heart but did not have the words to talk about before her class.”

Those words and that framework would prove invaluable for the work de Martinez undertook in 2018, advocating for a brave and determined mother who had fled a life of domestic abuse and life-threatening danger in Honduras. That woman, Abbie Arevalo-Herrera, is seeking asylum in the United States. She is an undocumented immigrant who lives now with her eleven-year-old daughter and two-year-old son in the basement of a Richmond church. If she steps outside the sanctuary of the church, she faces almost certain deportation.

De Martinez is part of the sanctuary movement, which seeks to gain documentation, security, and a new life for Arevalo-Herrera and her family.

She recalls a profound lesson from the biblical Hebrew class of Dr. Carson Brisson that has undergirded her work. In that class, she learned the Hebrew word shama, “to hear.

“But it’s deeper than that,” she said. “It means ‘to hear and be transformed.’ Hear and take this word so deep inside of who you are that you in your daily life become the word.

“I think that’s the pedagogy of Jesus.”

She remembers seminary discussions of the theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose allegiance to a higher law than Nazi Germany’s cost him his life.

“We’ve seen in our own history when people of faith have stood in resistance to the law,” said de Martinez, citing as examples the eras of slavery and segregation.

“Faith and values are greater than the law,” she said. “Laws are fluid, laws change, and there is a constant tension in this change. People of faith need always to work so that the pendulum swings toward dignity and humanity.”

These are large and profound thoughts, and the dangers faced by Arevalo-Herrera give the thoughts an urgency to which de Martinez and others of faith believe they must respond, regardless of prevailing law.

If Arevalo-Herrera returns to her home in Honduras, she believes she will be killed by the father of her children, a man who has beaten her numerous times, threatening her with a machete.

She made the decision to “go north,” and, with her daughter, walked, took buses, and ate and slept little. In 2014, she arrived in the United States and applied for asylum. Since then, she has married, had a child here, and waits, in faith, for that asylum.

De Martinez describes Arevalo-Herrera as “fierce, nurturing, courageous, and determined to pursue healing and wholeness for herself and her family.

“The sanctuary movement said to look at someone like Arevalo-Herrera and say, first of all, that she is a human being,” said de Martinez. “And this human being is rooted in her family and in her community here.

“This is where she belongs.”

Meanwhile, people of faith are joining with Arevalo-Herrera and other members of the Latinx community to amplify her voice as she tells her story and do what they can to keep her family together and safe.

Learn more on social media at #handsoffabbie.

Pictured above from right, Union matters! interviewer Joe Slay, Abbie Arevalo-Herrera, interpreter Leonina Arismendi, Union alumna Lana Heath de Martinez, and Union matters! producer Mike Frontiero in the church where Arevalo-Herrera lives in sanctuary.