Sanctuary: People Before the Law
Sanctuary: People Before the Law

By Philip E. Wheaton

     Salvadoran refugees arrived by the thousands in
Washington, D.C. between 1981 and 1985, in time swelling the
Salvadoran community here to over 100,000 and then to over
150,000. They were political refugees fleeing murders and
massacres. Many had literally walked from El Salvador across
Guatemala through Mexico to their final step to "freedom,"
wading or swimming across the Rio Grande. At long last, they
had made it and, they assumed, were safe.    
     Except that now they were sought by the U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the dreaded
migra. Dreaded not because of any direct repression from
these INS agents, but because as illegals, the Salvadorans
would upon capture be sent back to the "hell" from which
they had come, to the terror in their homeland. So their
freedom and refuge in the U.S. represented a double irony.
The U.S. government (under Ronald Reagan) was the primary
source of financial backing for the Salvadoran military
which sustained the repression from which they were fleeing.
And their presence here was also ironic because it was this
"land of freedom" that -- in its anticommunist phobia -- was
sending them back into unfreedom.
     Some of these refugees had family and friends in the
nation's capital, or in nearby Maryland or Virginia. Others
came only at the suggestion of compatriots who said D.C. was
a good place to find work. A much smaller number came
"accompanied" by North American citizens from faith
communities -- churches and synagogues -- who placed them
"in sanctuary." The initial purpose of this humanitarian
sanctuary was to keep them safe from deportation, meaning it
was also a political sanctuary. This meant actually living
in a given church or synagogue, within the "sanctuary of the
temple." These worship sanctuaries had suddenly become safe
havens from U.S. policies and the INS. There was only one
problem: such actions were illegal!
     For each church or synagogue, each assembly of the
faithful, this act of disobeying the law became the primary
concern of the faithful, their greatest stumbling block.
"Breaking the law" was the hardest decision each
congregation had to face. Whether at Luther Place Church,
the Church of the Savior, Hyattsville Mennonite Church,
Temple Sinai, River Toad Unitarian Church, All Souls
Unitarian, etc., the struggle of conscience was: "Is the law
more important than people's lives?"
     This moral issue was not over "people vs. the law" in
any abstract or generic sense, but between this law and
these people. The faithful were not questioning the
government's right to deport illegals per se. Rather, the
question was contextual: "Is this law, applied within the
context of a foreign policy which aids and abets the
Salvadoran army that is doing the killing, just?" Not only
that, but was the Reagan administration justified in its
complicity with these crimes against humanity -- including
the murder of Archbishop Romero and the four U.S. nuns --
even when the justification was "anticommunism?" Thus the
ethical dilemma faced by the faithful involved rejecting the
application of immigration law because its consequences
would be far worse than "breaking the law."
     In most cases, before a congregation decided to become
a "sanctuary," refugees would be brought to a religious
service or meeting to tell their story. Stories of horror
emerged: killings and kickings, deaths and disappearances as
a daily practice. And these acts of brutality had happened
to these refugees, or to their family members or friends,
often in their presence. So the anguished decision about
"people" versus "the law" was a live situational ethic.
     Out of these sanctuary situations new relationships of
love and concern developed. These not only led to
friendships but to a sense of "reversal" between the
refugees and their North American protectors: whereas the
faithful initially saw their decision to provide sanctuary
and take such a risk as an act of charity towards
unfortunate souls, they were to learn that it was the
refugees who were welcoming the U.S. faithful into their
world. Through conversations and tasks, interviews and
instruction, the faithful were gradually transported from
the naivete of their U.S. reality into the harsh reality of
El Salvador. Verbally and personally, these U.S. citizens
were being taken on a journey of consciousness into the
life, culture, suffering and terror of the refugees. In the
process, sanctuary was moving people from personal concern
and political witness into a deep bond of human solidarity
that became a spiritual and faith experience.
     Of course, like so many things in life, "nothing is
forever." The refugees had to get on with their lives, had
to earn a living, had to get financial assistance to their
loved ones left behind. "Sanctuary" from real life could
only be temporary, although sometimes it lasted one, two or
three years. Still, it was a moment in time when these
"poor" refugees and "powerless" sanctuary workers frustrated
all the powers of government. "Sanctuary" certainly had its
weaknesses and contradictions, but for a time it was a
powerful, grassroots movement which stirred their faithful
and left a witness to prophetic faith that wouldn't be soon
     Here in Washington, D.C., as in many cities across the
land, Sanctuary brought us as committed U.S. citizens
together as never before ... in large measure because of the
refugees. Regularly, we met together, planned and prayed,
listened and shared together. A new kind of fellowship
developed between us, a fellowship based less on ideology
and more on our common humanity as victims, whether as
victims of imperial oppression or captivity. It was a
"foretaste" of the Reign of God. We learned to love across
borders, across language barriers, across our political
differences and across suffering and pain. In the process,
we became a new people. In so doing, we foreshadowed what
future inter-American solidarity might look like: a
community of compassion and truth which unites us in a
common search for justice and peace in all the Americas.
     Philip E. Wheaton is the co-founder of the Ecumenical
Program for Peace in Central America (EPICA), a founder of
the sanctuary movement and a long-time solidarity activist.