Sanctuary Movement

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Sanctuary Movement

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Sanctuary Movement was an interdenominational effort to give aid to Central American refugees to whom the U.S. government had denied asylum. President Ronald Reagan in 1981 was the most militant Cold Warrior in two decades. Fearful that Communists intended to create new "Cubas" in Central America, the Reagan administration reacted vigorously to any possible Communist threat. It supported the Contras (counterrevolutionaries) against the left-wing government of Nicaragua and backed right-wing governments in Guatemala and El Salvador against leftist revolutionaries. Rapidly escalated violence generated a stream of refugees fleeing war and terror from both the left and the right.

Influenced by liberation theology and appalled at rising violence in Central America, groups and individuals from liberal, pacifist, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic churches resisted Reagan's foreign policy. Religious groups had previously involved themselves in opposition to government Cold War policy—for example, during the Vietnam War—but the Sanctuary Movement was the first time that religious groups led the resistance to administration policy. A Latin American Catholic movement that gained strength in the 1970s, liberation theology was drawing increasing attention in U.S. churches. It taught that the best way to practice Christian faith in Latin America was through aiding the poor and oppressed by political action and changing unequal social and economic systems.

The Sanctuary Movement began in 1981 in Tucson, Arizona, not far from where many Salvadorean and Guatemalan refugees had been trying to cross the border into the United States. Quaker Jim Corbett attempted to assist the refugees through official immigration channels. Unfortunately, immigration officials awarded political asylum to refugees from governments the administration opposed, like Nicaragua, but deported refugees from those it supported, like El Salvador and Guatemala. As the homes of his Quaker friends filled with undocumented refugees, Corbett proposed creating religious-refugee sanctuaries on the model of the antebellum underground railroad for escaped slaves. Presbyterian minister John Fife and his Hispanic congregation agreed to offer sanctuary—that is, protection from arrest, prosecution, or deportation—and the movement began. Other Tucson religious leaders, like Father Ricardo Elford, supported him.

On March 24, 1982, Fife's congregation publicly announced its existence as a "sanctuary." Immediately some churches in the San Francisco Bay Area followed suit, led by Gus Schultz's University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, which had pioneered sanctuary for draft resisters in the 1960s. The Sanctuary Movement quickly spread across the Southwest and then north to Chicago, Seattle, New York, and Boston. At its height, 600 congregations and religious organizations nationwide were Sanctuary sponsors or cosponsors.

In 1982 the original sponsor of Sanctuary, the Tucson Ecumenical Council, approached the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America about coordinating the national movement. The Chicago group then organized the National Sanctuary Alliance as well as communication and fund-raising organizations. Tension developed between the Tucson group, which was Protestant-led, decentralized, and inspired by civil disobedience, and the Chicago group, which was Catholic, centralized, and inspired by liberation theology. The Chicago leaders wanted Sanctuary to educate the nation and influence government policy. They disagreed with Tucson activists by wanting to accept only victims of right-wing violence instead of refugees from all violence. The Tucson group's approach frustrated the Chicagoans, who saw Central American violence in terms of unequal political, economic, and social structures that they had a religious duty to challenge. Threat of a complete rift was overcome in 1984, but throughout the Sanctuary Movement activists drifted toward one group or the other.

At first wary and ambivalent about Sanctuary, the government finally took action, partly in irritated response to positive publicity in CBS and PBS reports. Government agents infiltrated the movement, and prosecution began in 1984. Of several scattered trials, the most publicized was a trial of sixteen Tucson Sanctuary leaders in 1985. Most were convicted, but the judge suspended the sentences. Widespread publicity from the trial led hundreds of churches, synagogues, and city councils to declare themselves as sanctuaries, and three somewhat separate sanctuary movements emerged by 1987–1988 in southern California, southern Arizona, and South Texas. However, Sanctuary's difficulties included ideological divisions, funding, and refugees' problems: psychological and physical scars; ethnic, religious, and political division; and worries about relatives kidnapped or left behind.

As Central American violence waned in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sanctuary also wound down. Yet it represents a historical, explicitly religious challenge to American government policy. Sanctuary signifies such church-state issues as the role of conscience, spiritually-inspired civil disobedience, and faith-based antigovernment activism. Sanctuary by no means gives definitive answers to these issues, yet it brings them into uniquely stark relief.

See alsoLiberation Theology; Romeo, Oscar.


Coutin, Susan Bibler. The Culture of Protest: ReligiousActivism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement. 1993.

Cunningham, Hilary. God and Caesar at the Rio Grande:Sanctuary and the Politics of Religion. 1995.

Davidson, Miriam. Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbettand the Sanctuary Movement. 1988.

Mark Stoll