Mary Beth Writes

Sanctuary is Our Claim that Hope Can Become Truth  

 Sanctuary is more than a concept. Sanctuary is our claim that the realm of God and goodness is here, now, in this time and place. Sanctuary isn’t the room where we wait for things to get better. Sanctuary is the space where we claim peace and justice, hope and love right now, among us.

In sanctuary - hope becomes truth.


Many of you have heard of Oscar Romero who became Archbishop of San Salvador in 1975 - a few years after a centrist president had tried to begin land reform measures in El Salvador. However, the super-rich powerful people who ran the nation and who were less than 1% of the population responded to land reform – ie giving poor people title to the land on which they had lived for generations – they responded with threats, murder, and death squads.

Romero had a reputation as a conservative, principled, pious priest. That’s how he made it so high in the church. He worried about people’s souls, not their lives.

Soon after he became Archbishop, though, he began to call for justice and change and his voice was powerful in the world because he was now an archbishop. The powers-that-be did not want his voice saying anything.

On March 24, 1980 Romero was offering mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital in San Salvador. The front door was open when outside a red car pulled up, a man got out, propped a rifle on the edge of the car door, and waited for Romero to walk across the front of the sanctuary - whereupon he shot him. Witnesses said Romero’s blood soaked the communion wafers he was holding.

Also in the late 1970’s Felipe Excot just in his middle-20’s, was an unknown unimportant farm laborer in the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala.  Priests in his village, influenced by Vatican II, were supporting local people to set up a tutoring program where adults who knew how to read were teaching their neighbors how to read also. Felipe was one of the organizers and tutors until the day the Guatemalan military came to his village, rounded up the 17 people involved in this little tutoring program, and shot them all. Felipe happened to be out of the village - someone ran to tell him what had happened. He caught a ride out of the highlands and down to the plantations along the Pacific coast where he would work for 3 years. Once a year he would sneak back to a cornfield outside the village to visit his wife, but he couldn’t see his children because they were too young to keep secrets - the military still came back often, looking for Felipe.

With no hope for safety or peace anytime soon - no sanctuary anywhere to be found – after those 3 years Felipe and Elena and their four children walked north through mountains to Mexico where they took work as farmworkers. Even with both of them working they earned less than $.50 a day, not enough to buy corn to make tortillas to feed themselves. So they walked north again – this time to Tucson Arizona.

Then there was Michael McConnell and other activists in Chicago in the early 1980’s who were allies in the struggle for peace and justice in Central America. Civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua were hip-deep in money and military aid from the American government and it didn’t seem as if anyone knew or cared.

They heard of the growing sanctuary movement in churches in Tucson and Phoenix. They visited those congregations to see how that was working - and decided it was time to bring the Sanctuary Movement to the Midwest. Michael went to his church, talked to the board, they - nervously and anxiously – agreed – which is how Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ became the first sanctuary church outside of the SW.

In 1982 Len and I were thinking about finding a new church to attend. Not that we were out and about and actually ATTENDING services. No, we were home more-or-less waiting for a church to come to us.

Amazingly, the way our lives work - one did.

One night the local news featured a pastor who said his church was going to become a Sanctuary church in Chicago.  We sat up. This sounded crazy, scary, and extremely interesting.

We were the nut jobs who took an OFFERING at our wedding for an organization that was feeding kids in Central America. We knew who Oscar Romero was.  Responding to injustice in Central America was on our minds.

I remember turning to Len. “Are we going to check it out?”

He replied, as Len is wont to reply, “Got to.”

This is how Wellington Avenue UCC would affect our lives in the years we belonged to that congregation. We met the undocumented families who would live in the upstairs gym. We were there when Felipe and Elena arrived– I still remember their first communion with us when their baby Inez - child #5- child of love, life, and hope – raised her tiny arms into the air as though something was there for her to touch.

With others from that church we would accompany Felipe and Elena on part of their cross-country political protest caravan - Writing about that experience would be my first published writing.

Our kids were born in those years, their first babysitters were members of the other family. 

It was a lot of work to be politically responsible and active in that church - we have tales to tell of things that did and didn’t work as we tried to be friends and allies.  Hawking - during coffee hour - SO MANY too-long ties made by Daniel Vargas, a Salvadoran tailor who had never made a tie before in his life. There was a the day that Len and I, among 60 other Chicagoans, took over Senator Dixon’s downtown high-rise office until he took a phone call from our leader who was Michael McConnell. Or the day Len joined a protest where he knew it was likely he would be arrested and he was.  He was only in jail one day, but our daughters who both work for Cook County now say that if you know where to look, you can still find Dad’s arrest record. But even more satisfying, the day after Len and thousands of others protested Reagan’s announced plan to send the National Guard to fight Nicaraguans in their own country – well, the next day Reagan changed his mind and didn’t send them.

(And let me explain this: Sanctuary at that time involved offering support and temporary safety – a few weeks to a few months – until the people could find jobs and move into a safe situation in that community. The sanctuary movement back then was about highlighting the US’s dirty support of dirty wars. Today the sanctuary movement is long term protection for people whom ICE is hunting. It is a related but different effort.)

But that was all in the future the day we visited Wellington the first time.

We walked in, sat down, realized the pastor we saw on TV was not the guy leading the service that day. It was Michael McConnell but it would take a while for us to put the pieces together.

This is what Michael preached that morning. The words are mine but the theology is his. 

Sanctuary is more than a concept. Sanctuary is our claim that the realm of God and goodness is here, now, in this time and place. Sanctuary isn’t the room where we wait for things to get better. Sanctuary is the space where we claim peace and justice, hope and love right now, among us.

In sanctuary - hope becomes truth.

Like this:

If you are a woman who knows what it is to feel unsafe, assaulted, intimidated, mocked, blocked, or patronized -- know that when you walk through the doors into our sanctuary – in here we see, hear, and respect you.  In this sanctuary women can say their stories, laugh out loud, show anger, argue back and even swear (though it would be nice if you could hold off on the swearing till coffee hour). Here in our sanctuary women do not have to accommodate. Here women can spread their wings, their arms, their hearts - and take up room.

If you are a person with challenges, some observable, some invisible, some physical, some mental – Know that inside this sanctuary we welcome your strengths as well as what you struggling with and through. You do not have to apologize for how slowly you climb steps or that you can’t remember names, or that sometimes your body, voice, and spirit pull you in difficult and unexpected ways. We do not see you as broken. We see you whole and here in our sanctuary we honor this opportunity to be your friend and ally and for you to be ours.

If the color of your skin or the story of your culture is more unusual in this place than usual, you are absolutely welcomed in this place. You do not have to teach us, represent your culture or race to us, or do anything as some ambassador. You are welcome to just be here. You already belong as much as you want to belong. Let’s be people of faith and morals next to each other in our sanctuary together.

If your gender identity doesn’t fit into the narrow often-brutal niche of what passes for normal - please understand that in this sanctuary there is only one identity - human being, yearning and practicing the giving and receiving of love.

Michael said in 1982 -  “So sit by whomever you love and hold their hand…” I remember starting to tear up. I had arrived at the pretty good place I was in my life because of friends who believed in me, supported me, laughed with me, looked into my face and said my name - and some of those essential, life-changing love-affirming friends were gay men and lesbian women. But it wasn’t until that moment that a CHURCH said love is love is love. I would never again let a church or a theology tell me anything else.

If you are a man and yet sometimes you feel vulnerable and unsure of what you have chosen and what you are doing - know that in this sanctuary vulnerability is not failing nor a flaw.  Here you are safe to not know what comes next, to not know how to fix all the machines and boss all the workers and mansplain to others what they already know. And if and when your heart is moved, this is a safe place in which to have soft feelings, tears, and to be ‘meh’ about meat.

If you are no longer young, and you sometimes wonder if you are becoming invisible in this fast-moving, computer-driven, modern world - know that in our sanctuary we see you. We know your name and we know that you are unique and gifted and beautiful.

If you are creative but also insecure or shy about sharing what you create, or you are afraid you won’t be or weren’t a good-enough parent, if you’ve been called stupid or worse; if you are too fat or too skinny, too broke or too boring, if you are or were a nerd and it was more painful than comical – this is our sanctuary and we are safe in it together.

In sanctuary we are invited and challenged to share safety, be brave, to use and grow our talents, hopes, abilities, and our interesting disabilities.

I hope I have conveyed to you some of the electricity of Michael’s sermon. 

We come into this sanctuary to learn and practice how to be kinder, louder, and fiercer in acts and expressions of love.

For me it worked like this. When Len and I started to attend Wellington– people asked me as people are wont to ask; “What do you do?” And I would sputter, too shy to say that I was trying to be a writer.

When I said this within my own family, they said, “Oh Mary Beth, you’ve always been a lazy, lucky dreamer. When are you going to get a real career?”

When I said it at Wellington, they asked if I would work on a children’s play, and then if I would be one of their liturgists. Then I wrote about the Excot family, and then a more opportunities snowballed… and here I am.

In sanctuary we likely won’t get rich, but in sanctuary we can work to do the things on our minds and in our hearts.  Because these are the things that count.

But a caveat.  We are in sanctuary with each other. When people are trying to lead, create, provide, offer, write, act, dance, organize, support, bring, deliver, build and fix – we will be doing this with genuine fellow human beings.

Which means we are imperfect and so are our ideas, projects, and abilities. There will be mistakes, frustration, and failures. It’s sanctuary, not nirvana. We try, learn, and accept imperfection in ourselves and others. And keep going and growing.

I bet you haven’t heard of Rutilio Grande. I hadn’t until I started writing this sermon. He was a Jesuit priest in El Salvador who had grown up in desperate poverty. When he was 12 a visiting bishop somehow noticed him and asked if he would like to become a priest. It was a path out of hunger and hopelessness, plus it pleased his devout Catholic grandmother, so he said yes. Grande would eventually study in several cities in South America as well as Brussels and Rome. He met and became friends with Oscar Romero when they were both in seminary; their friendship lasted all their lives.

After the earthquake that was Vatican II, Grande intentionally re-shaped his parish ministry so that his masses were inclusive. He worked and preached a gospel of “immersion” where he and seminarian students he was mentoring would live simply in poor villages; intentionally asking questions and listening to the struggles of the people they served.  Grande believed preaching without knowing the lives of the people in the congregation meant very little.

In 1975 Grande helped serve mass at his friend’s Oscar Romero’s elevation to Archbishop of San Salvador. 

In 1977 Father Grande was assassinated in a hail of bullets.

The night of his murder the people in his village called Romero to tell him what had happened. Romero drove out from the city to spend the night in vigil, saying mass, in the sanctuary where his parishioners had laid Grande’s murdered body.

That was the night when and that was the sanctuary where pious, powerful Oscar Romero, who had never bothered about anything political, who only preached and lived for interior spirituality – that was the sanctuary where and when he changed.  He would say later, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”

Sanctuary is more than a concept. Sanctuary is our claim that the realm of God and goodness is here, now, in this time and place. Sanctuary is the space where we claim peace and justice, hope and love right now, among us.

In sanctuary - hope becomes truth.




I'm in tears as I sit drinking coffee at 6:30AM. Thank you for writing this, just, thanks.
Mary Beth's picture

The first time I heard this sermon - when Michael preached it in his words - I was in tears, too. The heart knows when it hears gospel.

WOW!!! Thank you..

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Love, Communicate, Show Up, & Love.

Our congregation is United Unitarian Universalist in Waukesha, WI. I only preach a couple times a year; it is the one of the hardest things it is my privilege to do. 

Sunday I preached to my congregation. The topic evolved as I was working on it during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, and as we learned more about the life and gentleness of George Floyd.

Here is my sermon in two forms. 

This is the service on YouTube: 

A Path of Integrity - Sermon

 I recently preached on the topic of Integrity. I had this sermon completed before Christmas because I wanted to not stress about it. Good for me. 

The day after Christmas I realized it wasn't "right."  I wasn't sure what was wrong, but as I do when I'm looking for more than I have, I delved into quotes by people I think know what I'm trying to figure out.  James Baldwin amazed me.  

Then I watched the movies I reference in the sermon. 

Then I wrote the sermon that is here. 

Sermon - Servants of the Quest

The park ranger described the paths one could choose to hike across the island. I picked the that one he said was the easiest.  When he was done talking, I walked to get a drink at a building that was a distance away, behind some trees. When I came back out, I couldn’t quite see what was a path and what was the field, so I walked back to where some people seemed to be hanging out. However, they were photographers and they weren’t going anywhere.

And that is how I got myself separated from all other humans who were going to be hiking across Bonaventure Island that day.

Where & What is Beauty?

This was this last Sunday’s service in the United Unitarian Universalist congregation in my town.  This was entirely written by five of us - the “United We Writers.” I told friends that I would post this on my website. The service was wonderfully received.

"No Felons Here"

I preached this sermon at United Unitarian Universalist /23/2019.

The photo is of the sanctuary of Grace United Methodist in Chicago. It's the church in which Len and I met and then married. We happened to be driving by earlier this year on a Sunday morning. They were voting that day on what to do with their building. I took this single picture with my phone, capturing the affection we all feel for our friends and fellow-journeyers in our congregations. 


Journey to Happiness

(I preached this sermon at my church, United Unitarian Universalist, in Waukesha. 3/3/2019)



One day a young Buddhist on her journey to find True Happiness, came to the banks of a wide river. Staring at the great obstacle in front of her, she pondered and pondered how to cross such a wide and mighty barrier.

  Just as she was about to give up, she saw a Great Teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yelled over to the Teacher, "Oh Wise One, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?”

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