Sanctuary: An Ancient Tradition of Faith Communities
Southside is known by many as the birthplace of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. Sanctuary volunteers based at Southside provided aid and temporary shelter to more than 13,000 Central Americans fleeing war, death squads, and torture. That legacy continues today, as we work within the present-day Sanctuary Movement to resist policies that target, criminalize, and deport undocumented immigrants. Over the past 3 1⁄2 decades, Southside’s response to immigrants and refugees has produced nationally recognized leaders, including former Pastor John Fife and current Pastor Alison Harrington.
History of Sanctuary Sanctuary is one of the most ancient traditions that we have as a people of faith. The ancient Hebrew people allowed temples and even whole cities to declare themselves places of refuge for persons accused of a crime, a practice that allowed those wrongfully accused or facing unjust punishment to escape swift and harsh retribution until the matter could be resolved. In the late Roman Empire fugitives could find refuge in the precincts of Christian churches. Later during the medieval period, churches in England were recognized sanctuaries, offering safe haven for a temporary period to accused wrong doers. In the United States the first practical provision of anything like sanctuary occurred in the years before the Civil War. The Underground Railroad came into being to help slaves flee the South and find safety in many congregations throughout the country. In the early 1970’s faith communities opened their doors to conscientious objectors who’d been drafted to the Vietnam war.
The Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s When refugees from the Civil Wars in Central America began to flee to the United States in the late 1970’s, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees seeking asylum. Many were deported and received by death squads, and murdered upon their return. From this dire injustice, the Sanctuary Movement was born. It peaked with over 500 congregations establishing an underground railroad whereby asylum seekers moved through the United States to safe houses and safe congregations in Canada. Sixteen clergy and lay leaders in the Tucson area were indicted. Eight of them were convicted but served no time. for their involvement in assisting Central American refugees. The Sanctuary Movement sought to remind the United States government of our core values and hold up the truth, that the US was directly supporting with arms, money and training the dictatorships and death squads of Central America. The Sanctuary Movement won the inclusion of Central Americans in our asylum laws as part of the 1986 immigration reform law. It is because of courageous truth tellers from Central America and the Sanctuary Movement who followed them that Central Americans today can claim asylum.
In 2006, an initiative known as the New Sanctuary Movement took shape with coalitions of congregations in major cities throughout the country. As workplace and neighborhood raids escalated, these congregations opened their doors to provide refuge to those facing deportation.
The Sanctuary Movement Today
And then in 2014, in the face of rising rates of deportations under the Obama Administration, Southsiders knew that it was time once again to act and engage in the work of Sanctuary. In May of 2014, Daniel Neyoy Ruiz entered into Sanctuary at Southside thereby igniting the rebirth of the Sanctuary Movement. After living in sanctuary for 28 days, Daniel was granted a stay of deportation and was able to safely return to his life in Tucson. But there continued to be millions more like Daniel who lived under threat of deportation — like Rosa Robles Loreto, a mother of two young boys who had lived in Tucson for years. Though she was not a priority for deportation she still had a deportation order in her hand — and so she entered into sanctuary at Southside in August of 2014. This time the work of sanctuary was more arduous but with the support of our community and our faith in God — after 461 days she was also able to safely leave sanctuary. Since 2014 we have seen numerous sanctuary coalitions come alive in cities across American and we have seen almost 20 public sanctuary cases. Before the 2016 presidential election we had approximately 400 congregations engaged in the work of sanctuary across the nation — since the election that number has doubled as communities of faith across the nation commit themselves to stand with the neighbors and commit themselves to the work of Sanctuary by signing on to the Sanctuary Pledge.
The Sanctuary Pledge As people of faith and people of conscience, we pledge to resist the newly elected Administration’s policy proposals to target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants, and discriminate against marginalized communities. We will open up our congregations and communities as sanctuary spaces for those targeted by hate, and work alongside our friends, families and neighbors to ensure the dignity and human rights of all people.