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Sanctuary: Being Christian in the Wake of Trump

Heidi B. Neumark
Wm. B. Eerdmans, 240 pages

In Sanctuary, Heidi B. Neumark weaves together times in the liturgical year with stories of how churches, congregations and communities provide space for those people often overlooked. She describes smells, foods, tears, aches and relationships that make the reality of the situations difficult to ignore. The connections between the stories shared and the liturgical times in the church calendar provide clear biblical ties that encourage deeper understanding of Scriptures and celebrations in light of human realities. Across 21 chapters, Neumark shares stories from her own years of volunteering and leading, providing voice for the many people who struggle to be heard in the United States and beyond.

Through the retelling of her personal experiences as a pastor, as a volunteer, as a student, and as a daughter, Neumark invites readers to journey through stories that are often unheard from the pew. An Epiphany story includes bedbugs and condoms in a LGBTQIA+ shelter; Ash Wednesday relays the reshaping of one’s identity by connecting to family history; Holy Week reveals how a young girl connects stripping of the altar on Holy Thursday with her father’s arrest by ICE. Neumark grieves alongside sex workers who mourn at the altar for others who were killed. She laments with those at the Mexican border who pray their visible wounds will be enough for asylum. While often used to refer to a specific piece of a church building, a set-aside parcel of property dedicated to prayer and worship, Neumark pushes readers to a new definition of sanctuary. The beautifully articulated stories re-imagine sanctuary to include so much more of what a church can do through words, presence, awareness and advocacy.

Along with the liturgical connections, Neumark also begins each chapter with a quote from former-President Donald Trump. The chapters include brief references to specific policy changes or actions that occurred during the Trump administration as they relate to the stories being shared. While the references add context for the importance of increased awareness in churches to the needs of marginalized people, they may push away readers who are sick of political talk or ready to put the last administration behind them but would otherwise love the missional sense of the book. Neumark includes references to the great disparities between those struggling for safety and security in the middle of settings filled with wealth and abundance — situations that have unfortunately existed for far too long.

Sanctuary is a book for readers looking for lessons on theology and Christ that are learned through living among those wounded by society. The story-telling style of Sanctuary creates an overarching theme that churches, and individuals, truly can change lives. Neumark explains that churches without direct connections to people like those she describes can still pray for them, search online for names to speak aloud, light candles, or invite guest preachers. Sanctuary is a call to congregations to remember those who have become, or have always been, invisible to many. It is a call to church leaders to guide others and create spaces of Sanctuary. A reader of this book cannot help but feel called to reassess their own participation in the ministry of Jesus Christ, empowered to see the children of God in a new way.

With its mixture of true stories, current events and biblical teaching, Sanctuary is an excellent book choice for any church leader, book group, or individual seeking a reminder of the power of community, of presence and of Christ’s love to impact lives. As Neumark shares her own growth through personal and communal experiences, readers are reminded that people of all ages, cultures, orientations, and backgrounds teach and learn about Christ from one another.

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Jennifer Pattee pastors a congregation in Los Angeles, California, and teaches online for the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.

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