From a Lay Leader's Desk

A series of opinion articles from lay leaders in our synod.


Seafarers International House: A Sanctuary Organization

Feb 06, 2020

By Henryk Behnke, Seafarers International House Director of Development & Communications (In collaboration with the Rev. Marsh Luther Drege, SIH Pastor & Executive Director, and the Rev. E. Roy Riley, SIH Board Member and former Bishop New Jersey Synod)

In August 2019, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Church-wide Assembly voted to approve a memorial that declares the ELCA a sanctuary church. Thus, the ELCA became North America’s first denomination to declare itself a sanctuary church body. As such the ELCA is committed to welcoming the stranger as the Bible urges us to do.

Seafarers International House (SIH) preceded this sanctuary declaration by two years, when the board courageously voted for SIH to become a sanctuary organization in September 2017. In fact, since its founding, which traces back to a mission for Swedish seafarers and immigrants in 1873, SIH has been walking alongside immigrants and refugees.

The impetus for SIH’s most recent program for asylum seekers was given in 2008, when then NJ Synod Bishop E. Roy Riley and NJ Senator Bob Menendez visited the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey in response to the increasing number of reported deaths in detention facilities.

Since then SIH volunteers and members of partner organizations have continued these visits in a formal Assistance to Asylum Seekers and Detention Center Visitation Program. They work hand-in-hand with asylum seekers giving them hope and getting detainees the proper documentation and legal representation to achieve a favorable outcome for those that fled persecution and violence. 

SIH has taken on another critical and underserved need: providing free transitional housing and social assistance for those released from detention. This means that the SIH guesthouse has become a sanctuary for immigrants.

Most of the immigrants staying at SIH have no friends or family in the US. Most are asylees, people who have been granted the legal right to stay in the United States of America and who have been released from detention and would otherwise face the risk of becoming homeless or being exploited. 

The new guests are welcomed by SIH Staff and receive food cards, MetroCards for public transportation, and Asylee Welcome Packs with toiletries and clothing provided for them by congregations and individuals. Over the next weeks, SIH staff help asylees get work permits and drivers licenses, find permanent housing and prepare them for job interviews.

Some of those served by SIH return to become mentors to current asylees. Informal meals and meetings, like the one pictured below, help new residents make friends and find a network people who care for them.


In 2019, SIH increased the room allocation to asylees from 4 to 6, assisting 36 new Americans (up from 28) in becoming contributing members of their communities often within less than three months.

SIH joins the church in its commitment “to work toward just and humane policies affecting migrants in and outside the U.S.”  This “new” dimension of SIH’s mission has already become as much of a blessing to SIH staff and supporters as for those they serve.

Note: SIH’s work with immigrants has been supported by the Metro NY and NJ Synods and Advent Mission Fund along with generous individuals. In 2020, funding will also be provided through an ELCA Hunger Grant.

Perhaps you as an individual or your congregation can help sponsor an asylee?  $1,000 per month supports an asylee with housing, food and transportation.  $200 per month affords an asylee food and transportation.