During the 1980s Sanctuary Movement, Presbyterians and others sheltering refugees from Central America found moral support and instruction in the Bible. During their struggle against the U.S. government’s efforts to deport asylum seekers they turned to another text: the government’s own refugee laws.

That was one lesson shared during the Presbyterian Historical Society’s PHS LIVE event on Thursday, when the Rev. John Fife and Mary Ann Lundy joined Patty Barcelo to discuss Sanctuary and their individual roles in its history.

Amanda Craft, manager of Immigration Advocacy in the Office of the General Assembly’s Office of Immigration Issues, joined the panel to talk about ways the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) assists immigrant communities today, and how that work received fresh affirmation when this summer’s General Assembly declared the PC(USA) “a sanctuary and accompaniment church.”

Patty Barcelo came to the United States from Guatemala as a child. She talked about her family’s journey to sanctuary, and her appreciation for the activists who gave her family “not just a chance to live in the United States, but to live anywhere … to stay alive.”

Before her family received official asylum status 14 years after entering the country, Barcelo’s mother told a U.S. judge that the people who killed, raped and tortured in early 1980s Guatemala “didn’t leave receipts” other than the marks on the bodies of their victims.

A first step in helping refugees then as with now is understanding the desperate reasons many take the long and often dangerous journey to this country.

David Staniunas, PHS Records Archivist, hosted the talk. Earlier this year he wrote about Sanctuary for “Presbyterian Heritage” and Presbyterian News Service.

The movement “goes back 40 years to when Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church defied U.S. immigration authorities by declaring itself a sanctuary for people fleeing war in Central America … Activists in Tucson and their network of supporters faced surveillance, indictment and prosecution.”

Fife and Lundy — who lived in New York and was co-chair of the Sanctuary Committee at The Riverside Church — were among those charged with crimes for their role in Sanctuary.

“The prosecution depicted the Sanctuary workers as a human trafficking ring ‘masterminded’ by John Fife,” Staniunas wrote. “Lundy … refused to testify at the Fife trial and [was] held in contempt of court and sentenced to house arrest … Five of the defendants were sentenced to three to five years’ probation. Three received suspended probation sentences.”

During PHS LIVE, Fife recalled how he first became involved with the movement.

After receiving grant funding from the national church to provide legal aid for refugees, he and others at Southside learned that no one from El Salvador was getting asylum. Together with Jim Corbett of Quaker Assistance, Fife came to see protecting Central American refugees from deportation in the tradition of abolitionists helping enslaved people live in freedom.

“When we started I thought we were doing civil disobedience,” Fife said. He later received a call from an attorney telling him that he and Southside were actually upholding U.S. and international refugee law, which allows refugees to remain in the country where they are seeking asylum while their cases are considered. “It’s the U.S. government that’s violating U.S. and international law,” the attorney said.

After that, Corbett, Fife and others in the Sanctuary Movement used the term “civil initiative” to describe their direct aid to victims of human rights violations when the law is being broken by the U.S. government.

Despite the risk of prison, Fife said, “It was a great time to be a Presbyterian pastor.” The national church and local presbytery provided financial and legal support to him and others at Southside.

Mary Ann Lundy said that Riverside in New York City had long had a strong activist tradition for migrants. Once the pastor at the time was convinced to support Sanctuary, the congregation also agreed.

“Educating people over and over again” was important to making people confident in the steps the congregation took to help migrants, Lundy said. The church’s Sanctuary Committee led efforts to educate the public, including politicians in the New York area.

Staniunas pointed out that Patty Barcelo had faced “the gravest risks” during this period, when her family traveled to the United States.

Barcelo’s father had been kidnapped and tortured while in prison in Guatemala. Her parents eventually made it to Mexico City, where Quakers connected them with Sanctuary activists who helped the entire family.

She remembered hiding from helicopters during the long trip to the USA, and sleeping with shoes on so she could be ready to move at any moment.  

When her family arrived at a Sanctuary congregation after crossing the border, “I was thinking this is too good to be true,” she said. “But when I saw everyone from the church together that night I just knew it was going to be OK. I was able to live without fear.”

PHS Live guests and host, clockwise from top left: Mary Ann Lundy, Rev. John Fife, David Staniunas, Amanda Craft, Patty Barcelo. August 18, 2022.

PHS Live guests and host, clockwise from top left: Mary Ann Lundy, the Rev. John Fife, David Staniunas, Patty Barcelo and Amanda Craft. August 18, 2022.

Amanda Craft connected Barcelo’s story to the ongoing work of the PC(USA) to support refugees and other migrants, including GA 225’s decision to declare the PC(USA) a Sanctuary and Accompaniment Church. That overture was drafted and sponsored by presbyteries from across the nation.

Craft compared today’s situation at the U.S.-Mexico border to the one in the early ‘80s. In 2016 and 2017 there was an increase in detaining refugees by the federal government that communities responded to through a renewal of the Sanctuary Movement.

“As people of faith we are called to this work,” Craft said. “If you visit a place of sanctuary you will find people there from all over the world.”

She spoke directly to congregations who are considering becoming involved in Sanctuary, urging them to consult with lawyers to assess and mitigate risks. In cases where congregations aren’t positioned to care directly for migrants they can join together with other groups to help.

Fife urged congregations to talk with local law enforcement. “They can’t build trust as law enforcement by doing raids on vulnerable people.” In some communities today, including Tucson, local police will not cooperate with federal law enforcement that is persecuting migrant communities. Lundy said that in her current home of Santa Fe refugees know that police who show up at the door “are there to keep refugee families safe,” not deport them.

Before Staniunas thanked the guests for their time and insights, Fife drew attention back to those most deserving attention: refugees.

“The unexpected genius of the Sanctuary Movement was that we only provided a safe space for refugees,” he said. “Patty’s family and other refugees became the voice of the Sanctuary Movement, not the Presbyterian church.”

Learn more:

Office of Immigration Issues “Refugees and Asylees” page
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Refugee Ministry page  
“Presbyterian Heritage: Finding and Providing Sanctuary” by David Staniunas