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. RELATIONSHIP TRANSFORMED 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 forgotten. 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.