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Sanctuary Threatened in Westport

We have a small handful of people who have asked for refuge at our church. No one that I am aware of has come from out of the area specifically to be in the camp; Westport is remote and not an ideal place to camp out unless you already have ties to the area. Only two came to town after we started, and one of those only because his boat sank and he had no immediate way home. The rest were cannery workers, seasonal workers, disabled folks, mostly people we know as members of our community, most looking for a temporary place to land while they sort out next steps in their lives.

Westport, these are your people, whether you want them or not or whether you want us to host them or not.

We believe in a God who takes the side of the refugee, the side of the poor, the side of the suffering. We believe in a Jesus who was himself homeless and was often accused of hanging out with all the wrong kinds of people.

And, because of that, I refuse to turn away people who have sought sanctuary.

Washington state law permits religious organizations to host tent encampments and forbids cities from making such efforts impossible.

Even though Westport’s mayor turned down our application to host our little band of folks, we refuse to turn them away. In an effort to comply with the city, we will dismantle the current camp, reapply, and reset the camp. In the meantime, people will be hosted within the church. It would violate my conscience and my responsibility as a pastor to my people to turn them away.

We were not only met with displeasure by local property owners, something that we did expect, we were met with open hostility and threats of vigilante mobs. There were suggestions that the property might be firebombed and that we might be run out of town. Money was offered to “take care of the problem.” This all happened in front of the city government and police. And most of the room clapped at the threats.

We certainly hope that these threats are empty, but we are not certain that they are. Sometimes following Jesus and his gospel involves risk. This is a risk we are willing to take.

I understand that many of the people opposed to our hosting this little band of homeless people are reacting out of their own fear and uncertainty. We live in difficult times, here in Westport, here in this world, where poverty is ever growing and the future seems so uncertain. The first victims of this uncertainty and crisis are usually those who find themselves homeless.

We always have a choice in times like these. We can act out of fear and listen to voices that encourage hatred and resentment. We can form mobs to attack the people in our community we don’t like and want to reject.

Or we can choose the path of Jesus, the path of liberation and freedom, the path of caring for each other even when it is hard. Every person living in a tent on our property has a story. Every person there is a human being, loved by God. If you have not experienced homelessness, you have no idea the pain and the suffering and the struggle that they experience. Or the courage it takes to keep living, keep fighting for life, keep facing the scorn and hatred of neighbors.

Westport, you broke my heart last week. I have lived and worked with you for two years now and this is not the best of who you are. The best of who you are is seen in our church every week when elders living on a fixed income sit with homeless youth and fishermen, when community comes together over and over to take care of each other. You are not your worst fears and you are not the hateful, angry mob you appeared to be last Thursday. You are so much better than this.

Whatever path we all choose, my own path is certain. I am committed to following the steps of Jesus, the friend of tax collectors and sinners, and to offering sanctuary to those despised and rejected.

“Perfect love casts out all fear.” 1 John 4:18

~The Rev Sarah Monroe

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