Becoming a Sanctuary Where Spirit Dwells

by Emily Provance
Fifteenth Street Meeting


The following is an excerpt from the plenary talk given by Emily at NYYM's Summer Sessions 2021. You can read the entire plenary at Emily's website, You can also watch a video of the plenary at the NYYM Videos YouTube channel.


What does it mean—to be, become, sanctuary?

First off—it’s about embodying God’s law, not church law. Just like in physical sanctuaries, it is so incredibly easy to mix up God’s law with church law, or with other versions of human law. It is so incredibly easy to find ourselves saying, “I rejoice in you except if… I will always love you except if… We honor that of God in you but only as long as…”


Those provisos, those except ifs and only as long as-es, are the places where we start creeping into some kind of modified human law rather than resting in the overwhelming presence of God. To do this is profoundly human, so we naturally find ourselves doing this sometimes. But we can be something else. We can reach for real, divine sanctuary.


Grace. When Kelly Kellum became general secretary of Friends United Meeting, he brought into the FUM offices the phrase, “We all live by Grace.” When somebody on the team screws up—misses a deadline, forgets to do something, knocks over a glass of iced tea on the stack of agendas, Kelly says, “We all live by grace.” I’ve seen this in action. It often draws laughter, but it also defuses the situation. Everybody in the room has heard the phrase applied to their own mistakes: “We all live by grace.” Everybody in the room is reminded that we all make mistakes, that we all rely on the forgiveness of God and our fellow human beings, and there’s this moment in which everybody relaxes, and while there might still be a problem, something that actually needs to be solved, the feelings of guilt and recrimination aren’t there. “We all live by grace.” This is embodying sanctuary.
Mercy. There’s a Quaker boarding school in Britain with a small percentage of students from other countries, some of whom are still learning English. Their reading ability often lags several grade levels below their peers’. So the school librarian keeps two special shelves of books, carefully chosen, that are interesting to teenagers but written at a level accessible to struggling readers. These shelves are completely unmarked and unobtrusive. When she encounters a student who might benefit, the librarian says, “Let me show you a place where I keep some of my favorite books. I think you might like them.” And so they have books they can read. They can go to the library like any other student and find a book to read for pleasure—and their peers don’t know, so there’s no risk of embarrassment. This is embodying sanctuary.


There’s a Friend in Kenya who I won’t name in this story, and you’ll see why in a minute. She told me once about being awakened in the middle of the night by a call to her cell phone. At the other end was a voice that said, “We are Ugandans. We are fleeing our country. If you do not help us, we may be killed by morning.” She did not know these men. She did not know how they had obtained her phone number. But she did know that Ugandans accused of homosexuality were subject to death. She made arrangements to meet them and hide them and found a safe place for them to go next, and she did this at risk to herself, knowing that if she were discovered, she would at least experience severe social consequences in her own community. This is embodying sanctuary.


There’s a rural meeting outside Belfast that had the same caretaker for sixty years. She lived on the meetinghouse grounds and cared for the buildings and property from 1955 until 2015. When she finally, in her eighties, could not physically do the work anymore, she moved a half-hour’s drive away to a home for the aging. The meeting hired a new caretaker but added into its weekly division of tasks, every week without exception, someone to fetch Susan and bring her to Meeting and someone else to give her lunch and then drive her back. It is not a large meeting. This is done without fuss. Of course they will care for Susan. This is embodying sanctuary.




I want to read a story from the book of Judges.


Jephthah then gathered all the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are fugitives in Ephraim, living in the territories of Ephraim and Manasseh.”


(In other words: the Gileadites were living on land that the Ephraimites had claimed. The Ephraimites were persecuting them for it, and now the Gileadites were fighting back.)


The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a fugitive from Ephraim would say, “Let me cross over,” the Gileadites would ask him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” In other words, the Gileadites had decided not to allow the Ephraimites to cross the Jordan River. But they couldn’t recognize the Ephraimites on sight, so they had to check the identity of each person trying to come through.


If he answered “No,” they told him, “Please say Shibboleth.”


If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce it correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. So at that time 42,000 Ephraimites were killed.


The Gileadites were checking for an accent. If you could say “shibboleth” the way the Gileadites did, then you were safe. Sanctuary. But if you couldn’t, if you pronounced it “sibboleth,” like an Ephraimite, you were murdered immediately. 


Because of this story, the word “shibboleth” actually entered English vocabulary. A shibboleth is a signifier. It’s a way that we figure out very quickly who we believe somebody to be: are you a welcome Gileadite, or are you a dangerous Ephraimite? When we engage with someone, we often listen for shibboleths. Do they use the right phrases? Display the right memes or bumper stickers? Drive the right cars? Wear the right shoes? Do they bring the right food to the potluck?


We do this. This community, New York Yearly Meeting. We do this. We do this to each other.


It’s one thing to expect one another to change, to have those moments of broken heartedness, to be present for one another in the moments when the Spirit of God is throwing the moneychangers out of our sanctuaries. To know that we all need repentance. To hold hands through that. Sometimes to speak prophetic truth to one another. To know that we have been exclusive. Racist. Homophobic. Chauvinist. Ablest. Destructive. We have fallen short, individually and collectively. We have sinned. I am so grateful that we know this and are working toward being better.


But it’s another thing when we allow the process of being searched by the Light, of broken heartedness, of repentance, and of genuine change of heart to be replaced by a set of shibboleths: right words, right clothes, right cars, right foods. None of those outward signifiers is bad, but as Margaret Fell would say, if we require them of one another and of those entering our communities—if it becomes about the shibboleth and not about the change of heart—then that is a silly, poor gospel.


Sometimes, we withhold sanctuary based on someone’s failure to say shibboleth. I see Friends in New York Yearly Meeting do this with Quaker jargon. I see us do it with political and sociological language connected to liberalism. I see us do it with whether people own either a hybrid or an electric car. I see us do it with whether people eat vegan and unprocessed foods. I see us do it with the strategies that people use to raise their children. I see us do it with what someone shares on Facebook. We look for shibboleths, and either explicitly or implicitly, we make clear that those who don’t say shibboleth will not receive our love, our mercy, our grace.
Just to be really clear here: when we have taken the time to know someone well, when we have worshipped with them, listened to them, learned what’s in their heart, and when we have a divine leading to engage with them, we might say—as John Woolman did when sitting with enslavers—“Friend, I am concerned for thee.” We speak the truth within divine sanctuary. We don’t subscribe to “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Truth telling, coming from a place of love and relationship, is a part of divine sanctuary. 


In contrast, to shibboleth is to make a judgment about someone based solely on outward signifiers and then to refuse to extend divine sanctuary to that person. If you do not say shibboleth, I do not extend to you mercy and grace.


That’s not sanctuary. A sanctuary welcomes in everyone, including—perhaps especially—those who’ve done wrong. That’s the entire point.


If I place any conditions around my willingness to embody sanctuary for you—when I require that you behave or speak in some specific way, or else I will not grant you mercy and grace—then I am building a barrier around the sanctuary I have tried to embody. Suddenly, just as there is in a physical sanctuary, there is an inside and an outside. And this is a real problem, because as long as sanctuary is conditional, those who want to stay in are imprisoned. Suddenly, there are boundaries on what you can do or say, and if you make a mistake, you find yourself on the outside. 


Not on the outside of God’s love. That’s not possible. But on the outside of what someone is calling a sanctuary.


If the sanctuary we embody is really divine sanctuary, nobody can ever be kicked out. This is both glorious and terrible news. I can never refuse you mercy and grace. No matter what you’ve done, I hold open for you the possibility of repentance. Remember, that is different from saying I have to accept everything you do. This does not mean that I can’t say “no” or “stop.” Prophetic truth-telling and protection of the vulnerable will sometimes require that I say “no” or “stop.” But I do it knowing you are still a child of God fully worthy of unconditional love. I do it in the context of relationship. I do it because I love you, not because I want to condemn you. I do it in the hope that you may be searched by divine Light, which will break your heart open and change you. And I don’t do it because you didn’t say shibboleth.


Let’s remember, too, that we are inside our own sanctuaries. If we start dividing the world into those worthy of sanctuary and those unworthy, we are ourselves in danger of becoming unworthy. We might violate our community’s shibboleths and find ourselves outside the sanctuary. Maybe you’re even afraid that you might place yourself outside the sanctuary, that there are certain things you could say or do or think or feel that would cause you to believe you are unworthy of love and mercy and grace.


You are worthy of love and mercy and grace. You cannot earn it, and you cannot un-earn it. We are all worthy of divine sanctuary. Not “peace, peace, when there is no peace,” but a sanctuary without walls where truth comes with love and no sin is without the accompanying promise of the availability of repentance.


There is nothing anyone can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.


There is nothing our enemies can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.


There is nothing our friends can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.


There is nothing you can do that makes you unworthy of divine sanctuary.


It is so tempting to look at this world and think that the pathway to the Kingdom of God on Earth is to win. It is so tempting to identify sides, those who are with us and those who are against us, to believe that we can rearrange the power dynamics so that the “good” side, the “right” side, has the power, and then everything will be alright. Not that we think that’s going to be easy. But it’s tempting to believe that this is the right strategy. We will just overpower the wrong, at the ballot box, by protesting, with emails to our representatives. There’s nothing wrong with using any of those pathways, especially to speak prophetic truth, but these techniques will never get us all the way to the Kingdom of God on Earth.


Friends’ experience tells us that the divine Light changes hearts. We are searched by it; we are convicted by it; we are brought to repentance by it. It is not our job to overpower our enemies, to win so that we can establish a different system of human laws. It’s our job to love our enemies, to extend divine sanctuary to them, and to our neighbors, too. In the end, it is Spirit that makes the change, and what we can do is hold open that possibility for everyone by modeling mercy, grace, and prophetic truth accompanied by unconditional love. We can invite the world to transformational repentance, one person at a time, by extending to everyone divine sanctuary, where Spirit dwells.