by John Fife, NCR

The situation on the southwestern U.S. border in the 1980s led to a movement of faith communities we called Sanctuary. In 1980 we began to learn that refugees from the death squads, torture and massacres of villages in El Salvador and Guatemala were arriving at the border.

The U.S. government refused to recognize them as refugees; thousands were being arrested, imprisoned and deported in handcuffs back to the death squads, torture, massacres and wars. The church on both sides of the border began to respond in ministry to the needs of the refugees in the ways you would expect — food, shelter, medical care and legal aid. Church volunteers enabled refugees to apply for political asylum, represented at hearings by lawyers funded by the Tucson Ecumenical Council in Arizona.

But by 1981 we were dismayed to learn that no one from El Salvador or Guatemala was being granted asylum. Our government was in political, military and economic support of the regimes that were ordering the repression. Our allies could not be creating refugees; we were bringing democracy and development to Central America.

My colleague Jim Corbett, a brilliant Quaker rancher, defined the ethical challenge to the church clearly, pointing to two examples in history — the abolition movement, when churches and people of faith formed an underground railroad to help escaped slaves cross borders and move north to safety, and the failure of the European church to protect Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.

A few of us began to hide refugees in homes in Tucson. It didn’t take long to run out of room in homes, and the church that I served as pastor began to take in refugees. The Border Patrol soon discovered our smuggling organization and sent a message: “We know what you’re doing. Stop or we will indict you on felony charges.”

Before we were indicted, we decided to go public by declaring Southside Presbyterian Church a sanctuary for refugees from Central America. Four other churches joined us in 1982, and a movement began…

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