Extending the Boundaries of Safe Sanctuary during Vaccination Debate

February 25, 2015

By Rev. Kim A. Smith
The reality of sustaining safe sanctuary came home for Mt. Tamalpais UMC (Mt. Tam), Mill Valley, recently, through the national headlines around the spread of measles and more broadly, the vaccination issue.  The powerful and vocal leader in the conversation and engaging face of the discussion is that of seven year old Rhett Krawitt, who, while being treated for Leukemia, a blood cancer he battled for 3 ½ years could not be vaccinated. 
Rhett and his family, parents Jodi and Carl, and sister Annesley are active members of Mt. Tam Church.  With myself and church members in attendance at the Reed District School board meeting to support the Krawitt family, Carl, Jodi and Rhett addressed the board for endorsement legislation to eliminate the personal exemption as a condition to attend school in California.  Currently, the Staff-Parish Relations Committee and myself are working with the congregation to confidentially assess vaccination rates in our congregation, and how to live together as a community, where several members have babies under the age of one, and others cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. 
This is all part of being a safe sanctuary church, an important vanguard for churches in our Annual Conference.  From the church weekly post:
“In fulfillment of this command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,” our church determined many years ago to be a Safe Sanctuary church, following a policy of creating safe and healthy space for all people.  Some ways we work toward this:
-        those who serve through working with children go through a background check and survey;
-        we spent over $100,000 to build ADA compliant bathrooms so our facilities are open for all (Eevery building on our property is accessible; and,
-        we serve gluten free elements for communion for those who have dietary restrictions.  
And now, with the current conversation about vaccinations shedding light on another aspect of Safe Sanctuary, and in order for our members who cannot be vaccinated to be able to be at church with confidence, we are in the process of figuring out how to be a community safe for them.  We know, of course, we cannot make any public space 100 percent safe for everybody on every issue.  We can, in this case, do quite a bit toward creating healthy and safe space for all.
What protects Rhett from diseases like measles and whooping cough is that other healthy children around him do get vaccinated. So when Rhett and his parents discovered that the immunization rate was low in Marin County, they began a conversation with us at Mt. Tam following a push to ensure that kids at Rhett’s school and across the school district got fully vaccinated.  Here is the good news: Rhett is now cancer-free. His school district, after hearing Rhett speak out, just approved a resolution in support of new efforts to get all kids vaccinated. And last week, because it had been one year since his chemotherapy ended, he did what all healthy children should do, he got vaccinated.
Mt. Tam Church encourages all United Methodist Churches to extend our understanding of Safe Sanctuary by taking similar efforts to make our churches and activities safe for people who cannot be vaccinated.   As a congregation, we are grateful to God that Rhett has been vaccinated, and want to continue to be an inclusive and welcoming congregation for all.