In the Old Testament, sanctuary was a place set apart from the world—Yahweh’s holy dwelling place (Exodus 15:17). The sanctuary was a place where the ultimate authority of God was proclaimed, where the name of God was invoked, where it was clear that worshipers recognized in action a law higher than that of government or commerce (Psalm 96). Jewish law provided those seeking refuge with designated cities to which they could flee, finding protection (Numbers 35:6-15).
Jesus Christ expanded the definition of neighbor to include those ordinarily despised and excluded (John 4:7-26) and in so doing expanded the limits of the protection. Jesus Christ demands lives that recognize all people in all cultures as our neighbors. Christ teaches us to go beyond legal requirements in helping and serving others, to share our resources, to show compassion toward all of our brothers and sisters while we pursue our pilgrimage towards God’s Kingdom (Matt. 25:31-46).
Hebrews 13:1-3 calls us to “love your fellow Christians. Remember to show hospitality . . . Remember those in prison . . . and those who are being maltreated, for you like them are still in the world” (New English Bible).
Sanctuary was recognized both in Roman law and in medieval canon law. English common law provided for sanctuaries as places of refuge for accused criminals in order to provide a due process for determining guilt or to enable the accused to leave the country in safety. The churches served as such a sanctuary. The tradition of sanctuary was appropriated in the “Underground railroad” which provided refuge and protection for fugitive slaves. The meaning of sanctuary was reappropriated in the context of the Vietnam War. Draft resisters and other people who opposed the war entered church sanctuaries to dramatize the immorality of the United States involvement in Vietnam.
The Church of the Brethren is part of an immigrant people. We left our home land of Germany and came to this country seeking religious, political, and economic freedom. In our history we have championed the cause of refugees such as Japanese-Americans, refugees from Western Europe following World War II, and refugees from Southeast Asia.
In 1949, Annual Conference passed a statement on displaced persons, encouraging each congregation to welcome and provide for at least one refugee family.
In 1969, a statement was passed by Annual Conference on “Obedience to God and Civil Disobedience” which says: “Christians have always faced choices which test the relationship between faithfulness to God and responsibility to the state. Today such choices confront us . . . Initiatory civil disobedience may occur when action is initiated to serve human need in a way that happens to transgress laws which themselves support and inflict unjust suffering.”
Amnesty International and other human rights monitoring organizations have documented the extreme and continuing repression of the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala toward the civilian populations of both countries. Forty thousand Salvadorans have been killed in the last four years. In Guatemala, just since the March 23, 1982, coup, more than 5,000 Guatemalans have been killed. Most of this slaughter in both countries has come from the hands of government security forces, armed and trained primarily by the United States government. According to United Nations and church sources, over 500,000 Salvadorans have fled their home land since 1980. There are at least 200,000 more who have been forced to leave their homes, but they remain in El Salvador. As many as one million Guatemalans are refugees in their own country. More than 200,000 have fled into exile. United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) indicates that 250,000 Salvadorans and Guatemalans have arrived in the United States in the last three years.
Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees are considered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to be economic refugees: “people looking for jobs.” Immigration and Naturalization Service simply ignores evidence of the human rights violations by these governments which are the primary reasons for their flight.
In the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States Congress adopted as law the standards of the United Nations Convention and Protocol on Refugees. According to this law, the United States should give asylum or refugee status to “persons who cannot return to their country or origin because of the fear (or the likelihood) of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” Such countries as Mexico, Honduras, Canada, and others do give refugee status to these persons.
Clearly, Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees cannot return to their country of origin because of fear of persecution. However, the United States refuses them political refugee status. Approximately 1,000 are deported every month. The fact that they fled makes them suspect in their own countries. Cases are documented of deportees who have been tortured and murdered upon return. Of the more than 15,000 asylum applications by Salvadoran refugees in the United States over the past two years, only seven have been granted.
Many churches across the United States have been quietly assisting and housing illegal refugees from Central America. Recently, some of these congregations have revealed their actions through public statements. Offering their churches as sanctuaries for refugees has greater significance than simply charity; it is defiance of the law.
Although no congregation or individuals participating in the sanctuary project have been arrested or prosecuted, there are risks involved. Anyone aiding an undocumented refugee may be prosecuted on the following charges:
Whereas both the Old and New Testaments teach compassion to those who are suffering from acts of oppression,
Whereas The Church of the Brethren has a tradition of providing aid and relocation for displaced persons and refugees who were fleeing oppression and killings in their countries, and
Whereas The use of the church as sanctuary is consistent with obedience and faithfulness to Christ’s will and way,
Therefore, the Church of the Brethren General Board:
Action at the March, 1983 General Board Meeting
Voted that the Resolution on Providing Sanctuary for Salvadoran and Guatemalan Refugees be adopted, and that the document be recommended for adoption by Annual Conference, through Standing Committee.
Curtis W. Dubble, Chairman
Robert W. Neff, General Secretary
Action of 1983 Annual Conference
James M. Beckwith, a Standing Committee delegate from the Atlantic Northeast District, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that the 1983 Annual Conference adopt the Resolution on Providing Sanctuary for Salvadoran and Guatemalan Refugees.
By a two-thirds majority vote the delegate body adopted the Resolution with two amendments which are incorporated in the wording above.
The delegate body of the 1983 Annual Conference had amended the Resolution to include the Latin American and Haitian political refugees. With more nationalities being included the title would become the Resolution on Providing Sanctuary for Latin American and Haitian Refugees.