Southside Presbyterian Church: Transforming the Heart of America Part 1

In the afternoon the SOAWatch Delegation went to Southside Presbyterian Church to hear Rev. John Fife, past minister of this congregation and Stephanie and Alejandro of the Southside Day Labor Center, a current ministry of the congregation.   THe church is built in the style of a 12th century Kiva of the indigenous people.  The archetecture is 180 degrees of Euro-centric theologic thought.  In Cathedrals everything points up towards heaven. THe art work is filled with Angels, those creatures that are inbetween this realm and heaven above.  Here in the Kiva, the indigenous people go down into the earth, because the earth is sacred.  THe art work is filled with snakes and lizards those creatures that exist in between the realms of this plain and the earth.  So the focus is different and this sets up a different perspective in how one relates with their world.

In the 1980’s the congregation began seeing people who  were fleeing from the US supported wars in El Salvador in 1980 and Guatemala in 1982.  The US refused to recognize them as refugees, to do so would have been to admit that the US was involved in what was happening. THe church tried to help people get political asylum.  THe courts refused even when they saw first hand those with the marks of torture on their bodies.

John Corbett, Quaker, began pointing to the history of those similarly oppressed and the response by people of conscience and the non-actions of the church.  THe Underground railroad of the abolition movement in the US and the refusal of the church to intervene in Europe preceding and during  World War II.  He told John Fife and others, If you are Christians you would understand this history and act on this issue.  So John Fife and Southside Presbyterian Church began smuggling people across the border.  THe US Government got word of this and warned the church to stop or be indicted. They decided to go public.  They thought if they were going to be indicted then they would need the support of the larger church.

An event happened in California where a young teen, undocumented, ran into a local church afterbeing chased by federal agents.  He hid in a closet.  THe federal agents came in and found him.  THe pastor of the congregation asked the question ” why can’t a church be a sanctuary?”  And so on the anniverary of Oscar Romero’s assasination, Southside Presbyterian Church received a family into the congregation and expected to be indicted.  That did not happen.  The government thought if this was ignored it would go away.  However, the congregation thought  if we want to change public policy we have to go public.  And news reporters and tv producers such as 60 Minutes arrived to tell the story.  One cannot plan a movement but only prepare for one.  The purpose of going public was to protect themselves.

The evil policies of the US supported the death squads in Central America.  And the publicity that surrounded the sheltering of these refugees began to attract othercongregations to do the same.  By 1984 234 congregations were on public record as being sanctuary congregations.  17 cities became cities of sanctuary where thepolice and law enforcement were instructed to not arrest or harass immigrants seeking sanctuary. There were colleges and universities that did the same.  Many had placed those seeking sanctuary on their adjunct faculty and taught classes.

At this point the government moved against us. Undercover US federal agents moved in as volunteers in Tucson and in Mexico to spy on activities and secretly record conversations.  These agents infiltrated worship services recording them.  For the first time in US government  history, they acknowledged recording church services.

In 1985, the government indicted 15 people including John Fife.   A few days before the trial, the judge ruled they could not discuss the polictical situations in EL Salvador and Guatemala.  They could not bring in witnesses of or victims of torture, They could not talk about the foundation of their faith that called them to provide sanctuary.  Basically all of their defense argument was denied them.  So if they could not make the case in court, they would take their case to the media.

Duringthe trial the number of congregations offering sanctuary  more than doubled.  THe Judge received 10’s of thousands of letters from across the country and the world. Their pro-bono lawyers were challenged because some of the defendents would be delayed because they were out  transporting refugees and were detained in that process.

A Catholic Nun was to be sentenced first.  The  judge decided to be lenient and offered 5 years probation if she would promise to no longer participate in sanctuary work. The nun  responded, ‘ Judge you have not been listening to anything we have been saying.  I will go back and do sanctuary work because my faith commands me to.’   THe judge called recess and came back with a different sentence.  This was the criminal suit.

When it was over, the defendents sued the US government in a civil suit.  The government delayed the trial for three years but when the trial happened there were wins for changing policy regarding the refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala.  These reforms unfortunately  rolled back these gains with the 1996 legislation.

How many people came through the congregations?  The congregation did not keep records  because they did not want anything that could potentially be seized by the US government.  It is estimated that some 13-15,000 refugees passed through Southside Presbyterian.  Those at highest risk were sent on up towards Canada where they could receive political asylum. What was also important is this movement did not fit the norm for movements. There was no central charismatic leader who could be removed and the movement would stop.  THis movement had a lateral base not a pyramid structure.  The US government was therefore unable to stop its influence. The lesson here for social change is this lateral base.

What happens when there is a person on top is this person or group of persons alienate the base because they have to be or tend to be more radical than the base.  This is a fairly consistent result of pyramid structure.   When a movement is lateral across its base with its own leadership and its own policies, then the importance thread  that connects the movement is communication of what everyone else is doing.

The government tried to discredit the leaders from the congregations by stating they  were marxists or anarchists or some other leftist political group but the people knew the congregations and the statements made did not make sense. THis was the synagogue  that has been in the community for 150 years and they  support the poor and disabled. THe accusations did not make sense.

In 1995 the government began ramping up arrests along the California and Texas borders.  The government thought the Sonora desert would never be used as a coridor for migration , it was simply too dangerous.  The  government does not recognise the desperation of poverty.  So  in 1999, 37 bodies were found in the desert.  So the congregations and SOuthside began to  put water out.  A group called Humane Borders was developed and put out 55 gallondrums of water at 45 sites with Blue flags to mark them.   Baased on anecdotal evidence many lives were saved.  But the deaths continued in the desert.

In 2002,  a group sponsored by the church called Samaritans began.  These were volunteers with 4 wheel drives stuffed by doctors/EMTs with water and medical supplies.  They went in search of migrants in distress.  The most common distress was dehydration but just as common were feet blistering.  People wouldener the desert with the shoes that they had, flip flops, high heels and their feet would blister and become raw.   Eventually they would not be able to walk and keep up with their group. They would be abandoned.  Samaritan drivers would sometimes find them crawling on their hands and knees because they could no longer subject their feet to the terrain.  WOmen would be beaten and raped.  THey wouldbe impacted by desert environment health conditions such as heart attacks and strokes or injuries.  People would fall nad twist or break legs.  Risk of rattlesnake bites would also be realized.

In 2004, No More Deaths established a permenant presence by setting up camps to provide water, food, blankets.  Several volunteers were arrested for littering with water filled bottles.

Stories begansurfacing about what happens when people are deported. THey aredropped off on the  other side of the border with no contacts, no resources there.  Many would  simply turn around and try to re-enter.  So in2006 an Aid station at the border was developed to provide resources and food.

To be continued:  Part 2



  1. yes, systematic genocide of indigenous peoples by dictators/generals in Guatemala w/support of Reagan and the CIA partly at least to protect United Fruit… Guatemala had the largest indigenous population in Latin America….

  2. […] From Google Blogs Headlines- Church News […]

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