Cities of Refuge
Then the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, “Say to the Israelites, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses.” – Joshua 20:1-2
In ancient times, cities of refuge like Bezer were designated as safe places to await trial for those who had mistakenly caused another’s death. Centuries later, in the middle ages, cities like Strasbourg opened their gates and the homes of their residents to thousands of peasants who were caught in the crossfire of wars ravaging the countryside. Fast forward again to 2017 and the town where I live declares itself a sanctuary city, an effort to extend welcome to all.
There are, of course, many reasons not to be a city of refuge. “I mean, sure he killed the guy by accident,” the ancient Israelites might have said, “but he was still responsible for someone’s death. Is that really the kind of person we want to have loitering around Bezer’s marketplace?” And what about the Strasbourgers? The households in that city already averaged about eleventy-gajillion members each. And now, they were expected to take in even more, mostly women and children, all of whom needed to be fed on a somewhat regular basis. The sanctuary city declarations in 2017 were met with threats of reduced federal government funding, funding that cities rely on for services for everyone.
You only have to glance at history to see that there are many sound reasons not to do the right thing. And yet, there is always one good reason to say, “Yes.” To say, “We can help.” To say, “You are welcome here.” God tells us to. And so we do what we can even if it is inconvenient or dangerous or crowded. We begin by opening the gates, by saying, “Yes. We can help. You are welcome here.”
God: You are our sanctuary. Help us to build sanctuary for others in our hearts, churches and cities. Amen.
Jennifer Brownell is the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Vancouver, Washington, and the author of Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath, her inspiring memoir.