Providing Sanctuary for Latin American and Haitian Refugees

1983 Church of the Brethren Resolution

Biblical Basis

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).

Historical Background

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.”

Current Situation

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.

Legal Implications

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:

  1. Harboring of Undocumented Aliens: Felony, $2,000 and/or five years, (Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 274) (8 U.S. Code 1324).
  2. Conspiracy to Harbor: $10,000 and/or five years.
  3. Smuggling: $2,000 and/or five years.


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:

  1. Directs our Board chairperson and/or General Secretary to communicate with the United States Department of State our protest of its deportation of legitimate refugees in violation of the Standards of the United Nations Convention and Protocol on Refugees passed by the United States Congress in 1980. We recognize Salvadorans and Guatemalans as legitimate refugees and petition our government to provide them with shelter.
  2. Encourages congregations to employ all lawful means to protect refugees, including: providing legal assistance to refugees through administrative or judicial appeals of actions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, petitioning Congress and the State Department to grant refugee status to those fleeing political oppression in Latin America and Haiti, and providing the general public with information on the crucial issues. These actions are consistent with our commitment to obey the law unless such obedience violates conscience.
  3. When a congregation has pursued all lawful means to protect the rights of refugees and has exhausted those alternatives—and only then—the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren endorses sanctuary as an appropriate Christian response to injustice being suffered by Latin American and Haitian political refugees. It encourages congregations to prayerfully consider Sanctuary as a faith response to the current situation in Central America, such response perhaps to include the local church itself becoming a sanctuary or making area sanctuaries in whatever other way may be possible. Any church considering offering sanctuary should seek legal counsel.
  4. Commits up to $10,000 per year from its undesignated balances for grants to congregations which face legal expenses related to providing lawful assistance and protection or sanctuary for refugees such as those from El Salvador and Guatemala. Up to $2,000 may be granted to a congregation in any year. Congregations applying for these grants will be expected to show that they have exhausted other local and district sources of financial aid. Parish Ministries Commission staff are authorized to expend these grants. There is no guarantee that funds will be provided for any or every request for assistance. Individual consideration will be given to each request and approval granted on the basis of merit. Parish Ministries Commission staff shall be prepared to counsel congregations seeking guidance related to providing sanctuary.

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.

Secretary’s Note

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.