“Sanctuary Cafe is a new, independent cafe located inside University Church in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The ethos behind Sanctuary Cafe arises out of our desire to create a transformational place that induces a close connection between home baked smells, art and justice advocacy in a meticulously curated environment. Sanctuary Cafe is a vibrant justice, art, media, entertainment and activist destination dedicated to justice and human rights organizing.” –
For congregations, sanctuaries spaces can be traced back to medieval England when congregations allowed those who had been accused of crimes to seek refuge for up to 40 days. They provided time for individuals to prove their innocence or be forgiven by the community.
Later on, sanctuary spaces became prominent during the Underground Railroad, when safe network routes were established to support enslaved people to escape. Examples of congregations creating sanctuary spaces are abundant, from offering a brick and mortar home to hosting events, such as providing important meeting spaces throughout the Civil Rights Movement.
Notably, moreover, throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, congregations sponsored sanctuary spaces for “refugees from the U.S.-sponsored Central American wars enter[ing] the country. Refugees were provided shelter, medical care, employment and legal representation.”
In response to today’s political moment not only are congregations looking to create sanctuary spaces, but so are schools and many other institutions
But what about expanding sanctuary spaces beyond brick and mortar walls?
, located at 5655 S. University, established a Sanctuary Café open to the public on April 3, 2017. This unique space has allowed the congregation to expand the meaning of a sanctuary space into everyday practices.
“The space that becomes a space for everyone is the kind of space that embraces tranquility.” These words by Martin, founder of Sanctuary Cafe, stood out to me as I entered Sanctuary Café, finding welcoming staff and clients. I embraced those words with much admiration as I stared at a wall that had the word “love” printed repeatedly in Farsi by an Iranian woman.
The wall of the café intrigued me to learn more about the Sanctuary Café. Before becoming Sanctuary Cafe, this was a space where queer folks could meet and be in community in the face of repression by the University of Chicago in the 1960s. Later in the 90s, it became a sanctuary space for undocumented immigrants if they found sanctuary strategic and timely.
During my visit, Martin, and Sarah, chair of the Social Justice Committee at University Church, welcomed me to Sanctuary Café with a Topo Chico and a Flourless Chocolate Torte made in house. As I broke bread with Martin and Sarah, I realized that Sanctuary Café was no ordinary café. I thought about how the space was set up, with seating areas reminding me of lunch time in elementary school and how simple it was to discuss the test we just had or make new friends.
Sanctuary Café is the kind of space that allows you to build relationships with strangers and share similarities and difference based on our political identities.
Martin clarified that the café was not the University of Chicago’s space. It is important to make this distinction because it restricts the University from making any decisions about how the space should be utilized or the people that should be allowed in the space. Instead, Sanctuary Café is an open space for the community to be with one another without feeling that must be part of the University in order to belong. It allows for the members of University Church to remain active in the Café.
Like Martin stated during my visit, not all congregation members are able to physically rally for social justice. But all members in the congregation remain active in our movements in all kinds of ways– from writing letters to donating money to supporting the deportation defense work of Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD).
Martin also shared with me that a new refrigerator had just been placed within Sanctuary Café.
If a homeless individual arrives at University Church in need of food, a member of the church knows that they can go directly to this new refrigerator to support them. Sanctuary Café, then, is designed in a way that it not only offers a
physical sanctuary space
, but sees sanctuary as an ongoing process. Being a sanctuary church is a way of building relationships, organizing members, and targeting the root causes of issues like deportations, mass incarceration, and homelessness.
Sanctuary Café is economically supported by the people of the congregation, students, community members, Chicago residents, and many organizations. We can see this once a month, for instance, when a local Black youth organization uses the space to perform and speak on what’s happening in the City.
Workers at Sanctuary Café get paid $15.00 an hour compared to Chicago’s current minimum wage of $11.00 an hour.
If you ever need a place to meet new people, talk about creating the kind of Chicago we want to live in, or just sit down to read a book, Sanctuary Café is the right place to do just that and more.
Thank you to University Church, Sanctuary Café, Martin & Sarah for making this story possible. For more information about becoming an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation and CRLN partner, please visit our website at
University Church is a partner congregation with us at the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America.