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There were many lessons learned in our experience with over 5,000 Haitian refugees who came through our doors between late May 2016 and today. We averaged 33 new arrivals every day, seven days a week for five months! Christ Ministry Center became a virtual Refugee Camp in the heart of San Diego.

Today, after the border has been closed to the Haitians and immigration policy seems to change daily, there are still a few Haitian women (some pregnant) and their children staying in our “GateWAY Loft”.

We learned that there are so many caring people who want to help. But we also learned few are able or willing to meet the most immediate and critical need: SHELTER. That’s when we began to envision a network of churches, organizations and individuals who can offer or support SAFE HARBORS.

The Safe Harbors Network would fil the missing link between those who want to help, but cannot become “sanctuaries” for refugees, trafficked women, unaccompanied children, or homeless teens.


First, what is “sanctuary” we are hearing a lot about? (Sanctuary churches, sanctuary cities, and even sanctuary states.) If you are confused, you are not alone. Recently, while here in San Diego, the new Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, said he “doesn’t have a clue” when asked to define a “sanctuary city”. The term needs to be redefined, or abandoned entirely.

When it comes to sanctuary churches, it traditionally meant a church that takes in an individual or family who would otherwise be deported. Traditionally, government officials have been reluctant to enter a church or house of worship to arrest or detain immigrants.

The Sanctuary Movement began in the 1980s to assist refugees from Central America. As many as 800 churches offered to shelter these exiles who would otherwise be deported until they could have their day in U.S. Immigration Court (in accordance with U.S. immigration law and policy for asylees.)

Making the decision to become a “sanctuary church” is not to be made lightly. It requires courage and commitment, not to mention time, efforts and money. It’s an “all-in” kind of commitment, and places the church and government in a standoff. Many congregations are unable to make that level of commitment.

There must be an alternative for those who want to help! That’s where “Safe Harbors” come in.

I’ve met recently with Bishops Gabriel Yemba Unda (East Congo), Earl Bledsoe (North Texas-New Mexico), and Robert Lawson Bryan (South Georgia); interfaith leaders; “Welcoming Congregations”; immigration attorneys; refugee advocates (including Cal-Pac United Methodist Women); and leaders of several National Boards and Agencies (including Church World Services).

The common consensus is that “sanctuary” needs to be redefined and updated to our current situation. The 1980s model works for few congregations in 2017. (God bless those sanctuaries!)

What are Safe Harbors?

Simply stated, Safe Harbors would be a network of congregations, organizations and individuals who are willing to provide room, board, and safe shelter for an individual or family. They need NOT be “undocumented” refugees, nor do they necessarily have to be housed at the church. The Safe Harbors Network would connect those needing short to mid-term “safe harbor” with those willing and able to provide support. In today’s world, even an business or individual could become a “Safe Harbor”.

No Place to Lay Their Head

The Safe Harbor concept emerged from our recent experience and lessons learned. The most critical need for our refugees was shelter – a place to stay. Otherwise, they would have been left to survive on the streets.

While we were blessed with many individuals, churches and organizations who stepped up to help us with food, clothing, funds, etc., those willing to provide shelter (either in their church or homes) were few and far between. Bless the ones who did, and who found the challenges this arrangement faces.

What if most of the 300,000 congregations in the U.S. would take in just one refugee or family? What if hundreds of individuals who cannot take anyone into their home provided funds, food, transportation and necessities to help others who open their church or home for a specified time? What a difference that would have made.

Where do they stay?

Again, it does not necessarily mean housing refugees at the church, and they may not be undocumented. It means the congregation welcomes and shelters one or more person for a defined time. The home sponsor will not have to bear the burden alone. The Safe Harbor congregation’s parishioners or organization’s members covenant with them to provide funds, food and necessities to share the responsibility.

What is my commitment?

The method and level of support (such as “adopt a refugee”, or “sponsor a bed”) will be defined and limited in time and funding. Safe Harbor Network is putting together resources and guidelines for what is expected from the sponsors and how to provide safe harbors. That will include vetting procedures, financial expectations, and technology.

This concept is not just for refugees. Last month, I participated on a panel with Jennifer Friend, a former homeless teen, who is now an attorney and Founder/CEO of Project Hope Alliance in Orange County, CA. Orange County, one of the most affluent areas in America, has one of the highest homeless student populations in America.

Safe Harbors can provide a safe place for homeless students, trafficked teens and children at risk of exploitation.

Our website, SafeHarbors.NET, is under construction.

We are looking for the first 100 Charter Safe Harbors and Sponsors.

If you are interested in joining the Safe Harbors Network, please contact me at (619) 723-1371. Safe Harbors Network is a ministry of Christ Ministry Center, a 501(c)3 non-profit. All donations are tax deductible.

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