It All Started at a Little Church in Tucson

The Southside Presbyterian Church is located in a barrio, about a mile outside of Tucson. It was founded in 1906 as a church for the native Tohono O’odham people. But it also served Chinese and Mexican people. To this day it prides itself on its diversity. The church website describes its congregation as “a diverse mix of Native Americans, Latinos, Caucasians, African Americans and others.” It also prides itself on being ground zero for the Sanctuary Movement.

Decades later, in an interview with Reflections, a publication of the Yale Divinity School, Southside’s minister at the time, Rev. John Fike, recalled: “I was pastor in a borderlands community in Tucson. The context was clear. This was when Central American refugees were escaping the death squads, yet our government was deporting them back to those countries and back to those death squads. Personally it took some prodding from a Quaker friend before I could really see the situation. My friend reminded me of the churches’ failure to protect Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and he said we can’t let that kind of human rights failure happen on the border in our time. I realized it meant I had to accept responsibility as a pastor to talk about the ethics of sanctuary to my congregation.”

Garita de Otay border crossing
North of Garita de Otay border Crossing, US Side, 1997.

The Quaker friend who Fike referenced was James A. Corbett, a Harvard-educated rancher living in Tucson. The two are credited with being founders of the Sanctuary Movement. In March of 1982, two banners were hung at the Southside Presbyterian Church. One read “This is a Sanctuary for the Oppressed of Central America.” The other “Immigration: do not profane the Sanctuary of God.”  

Speaking to Arizona Public Media decades later, church elder Leslie Carlson recalls the moment: “One day somebody said, ‘We need help,’ and I knew that people’s lives were at stake, and I knew that it was something I could do, and I felt the call to do it.”

Overall, the volunteers of the Southside Presbyterian Church aided some 13,000 Central American immigrants, providing food, shelter and transport. The church’s website notes “the Sanctuary Movement sought to remind the United States government of our core values and hold up the truth, that the US was directly supporting with arms, money and training the dictatorships and death squads of Central America.”

Mexican-American border at Negales, Mexico and Negales, Arizona
Mexican-American border at Negales, Mexico and Negales, Arizona

The movement spread quickly. In another part of town the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Tucson worked with the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico to get refugees across the border and shelter them. The Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart announced that they would provide sanctuary to undocumented aliens. Five congregations in Berkeley, Calif., declared their commitment to protect and defend Guatamalan and Salvadoran refugees.

In all the Sanctuary Movement would include more than 500 congregations of all denominations. They were Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Jews, Catholics, Mennonites, Quakers and Unitarians. Corbett told the New York Times (May 6, 1986): “The fact that it has grown as much as it has is a reflection that we’re drawing on the most deep-seated religious traditions in Western civilization.” They established a kind of modern day underground railroad, shuffling refugees from one church to another until they reached safe houses in Canada. Some 44 Salvadorans lived for several years in the University Baptist Church in Seattle where two babies were born. By 1987 there were 440 declared sanctuary cities as well as the entire state of New Mexico.

Several national religious organizations put forth statements of support. The Rabbinical Assembly in 1984 announced that it “endorses the concept of Sanctuary as provided by synagogues, churches and other communities of faith in the United States.” That same year the American Lutheran Church “Resolved, that The American Lutheran Church at its 1984 General Convention offers support and encouragement to congregations that have chosen to become refugee sanctuaries.”

Fike, Corbett, Father Padre Ramón Dagoberto Quiñones, the head priest of the church in Guadalupe, and several other Sanctuary members were indicted and found guilty of alien smuggling charges in 1986. Fike declared at a press conference afterwards: “”I plan for as long as possible to be the pastor of a congregation that has committed itself to providing sanctuary.” Most received suspended sentences.

The Sanctuary Movement faded in the 1990’s, having largely achieved its goals with Congress passing legislation allowing Central Americans in the U.S. to apply for permanent residence. However, a New Sanctuary Movement sprung up during the Obama Administration in response to a growing number of deportations. It continued to grow due to the border policies of Trump. Speaking with Arizona Public Media in 2017, Fike, who is now retired, commented: “Here we are again. Our responsibility as people of faith, here on a border, is to learn from that history and to protect the victims as much as we can.”

Southside Presbyterian, recalling that history, says on its website “That legacy continues today, as we work within the present-day Sanctuary Movement to resist policies that target, criminalize, and deport undocumented immigrants.”

Sign outside First Congregational Church, Montclair, N.J. 2017
Sign at First Congregational Church, Montclair, N.J. 2017
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6 Responses to It All Started at a Little Church in Tucson

  1. ckennedy says:

    I love Tucson, for many reasons. It’s where my mom was born, and when we’d visit my grandparents, we’d go to the Sacred Heart Church for mass. There was always a strong social justice mission there that energized the community.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. sportsdiva64 says:

    Once again history is repeating itself and we STILL haven’t learned anything from it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This series of posts about immigration is so important, Ken. It helps humanize people who merely sought to survive as individuals and families during times of hardship, hunger, and oppression. Sadly, these are facts too many in the U.S. never learned. How quickly most forget that their ancestors once came here for similar reasons.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Operation Sojourner: Spies in the Pews | off the leash

  5. Another wonderful post to learn about, with heart-warming banner at the end; no human being is illegal.

    Liked by 2 people

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