The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Protestant denomination in Minnesota, has become the first North American denomination to declare itself a sanctuary church, committed to supporting and sheltering migrants entering the country.

The ELCA announced its decision last week at a tri­annual assembly in Milwaukee, where leaders also participated in a march and prayer vigil at the local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office.

While individual churches from many faith traditions already are supporting refugees on the southern border and in their communities, this is the first time a denomination has urged its members to engage in actions ranging from providing living spaces for migrants to supporting them in immigration courts.

"This doesn't mean that we are asking every church to provide shelter," said the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director of the national ELCA's division for Global Mission. "We're saying, in your own way, find ways to help."

"We're not asking people to break the law," he said.

Minnesota is home to the largest ELCA community in the nation, estimated at 670,000 members. Nationally, the ELCA has about 3.3 million members and 9,000 congregations.

The Lutherans have long been involved in social causes such as hunger and housing, the environment, racial justice and immigration services. The new sanctuary guidelines inject a new energy to that mix, encouraging congregations to explore ideas that are appropriate for them.

"It may mean providing space for people to live; providing financial and legal support to those who are working through the immigration system; or supporting other congregations and service providers," according to the ELCA's online explanation.

Churches also could host English as a second language classes, participate in vigils and marches to protest the detention of children, or just have "thoughtful conversations" with church members and the community about the issues faced by migrants and the biblical response to it.

Some ELCA churches in Minnesota already had declared themselves sanctuary churches through a broader faith-based initiative that unfolded in recent years. One is Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul. Its pastor, the Rev. James Erlandson, called the ELCA statement "a great idea" given the anti-immigrant climate brewing in the country and the many needs of migrants trying to escape violence in their homelands.

"The issue is so urgent because of what's happening on the border," Erlandson said. "On the news, people are seeing ICE raids, children in detention, people being tear-gassed."

His church is not now housing anyone, he said, but has supported immigrants in other ways, including advocating for them at the Legislature.

The Rev. Ingrid Arneson Rasmussen is pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, one of the ELCA's "sanctuary support" congregations. Her congregation applauded last weekend when she announced the news. But she recognizes that not every church is on board. About 1 in 5 delegates did not vote for the change, she noted.

The move brought a flood of praise on social media as well as some criticism, with much of the disagreement centered on Bible passages counseling people to welcome strangers and others calling for obedience to authority. "Sorry, will be finding another Lutheran denomination," read a Facebook post by Daniel Wolter, a former Minnesotan who now lives in Iowa. "The ELCA has let politics go before faith. Advocating for sensible changes to immigration laws is one thing. Actively seeking to facilitate crime is another."

Rasmussen believes the ELCA's statement will embolden congregations on the fence about helping immigrants and refugees. Holy Trinity church members do immigrant advocacy work and provide direct support as well. For example, it just received a Guatemalan woman who learned she was pregnant, and is seeking diapers, a stroller and other baby basics.

"The gospel of Jesus Christ leads us to embrace the stranger," Rasmussen said.

Mary Campbell, director of the national ELCA's initiative to accompany minor migrant children and their families facing deportation, said today's anti-immigrant climate has been debilitating to migrant families. That's why the church had to take a stand.

"There's a very real fear migrants are feeling because of this [climate]," said Campbell. "Bishops told us that some people are afraid to go to church, afraid ICE will pick them up."

Campbell believes that in the months ahead, congregations will begin exploring what the ELCA's new statement means for them. But for now, she said, it was time for the church to take a more visible and vocal stand.