From the barrio of South Tucson, the Tucson Mountains appeared clean and sharp like hammered copper on a clear morning following the equipata or winter rains, nearly the season’s last; the glassy towers downtown held the sky reflected in squares of wavery unnatural blue. The university students were on spring break and already the snowbirds were flying north, emptying the hundreds of square miles of retirement villages, trailer parks. Active Adult communities, and golf links; within six weeks the population of greater Tucson would have dropped from around seven hundred thousand to four hundred and fifty thousand people. In the Southside barrios, no one was likely to know the difference.
Three-Seventeen West Twenty-Third Street was in a neighborhood of crumbling adobe houses, shacks, rotting pancake pear, and collapsing fences. At 9:30 on a Sunday morning, dark men in straw hats sat in vacant lots under rusty palm trees drinking beer, and middle-aged Caucasians with their hair in pigtails, wearing faded military clothes and carrying packs on their backs, walked the empty streets. A sign outside said “Este es sanctuario de Dios para los opprimidos de Centra America“; another beside it, “Southside Presbyterian Church.” A nylon tent was pitched in the churchyard and a line hung with clothes stretched across the grass. Cars stood tightly parked along the curb and in the adjacent streets, and the church parking lot was filled.
Southside Presbyterian Church and its pastor, the Reverend John M. Fife, are the seed from which the sanctuary movement has developed since the late 1970’s. Sanctuary, operating on the model of the Underground Railroad in antebellum days, illegally receives refugees from Latin and Central America, particularly Guatemala and El Salvador, and passes them along from one sanctuary church to another across the United States and Canada. Sanctuary argues that Washington, having fomented political violence by its antirevolutionary policies, must take responsibility for the victims of counterrevolution by accepting them as political refugees to the United States; the government insists that they are not political but economic refugees, and that its responsibility is to control the country’s borders and to implement its immigration laws. On May 1, 1986, the conviction in Tucson’s federal court of eight sanctuary activists, including the Reverend Fife, helped to cap the movement’s national prominence.
An elderly black man, formally dressed in a dark coat and necktie, stood distributing programs outside the packed meeting hall, shabby whitewashed adobe painted blue up front. Chairs were arranged on both sides of the building, against the back wall facing the pulpit and, behind it, the cross—seven or eight feet tall and constructed from roughened unpainted timbers. The congregation included some elderly, staid, rather prim-looking couples, a few Mexicans, and a number of Central Americans seated cross-legged on the floor behind the pulpit. The rest were mostly men with graying beards and graying long hair and their women in long-skirted print dresses and shawls. A fat black woman, spectacled and with a loop of pearls on her wide bosom, sat on a benchseat behind the piano. She seemed bursting with energy and looked ready to throw her instrument at the congregation.
The Reverend Fife was a very tall man with iron-gray hair and a close gray beard, tanned face, and glasses. In his Lenten robes he appeared to stand above the cross, which he nearly obliterated by his presence. He was speaking in English as I entered the church and paused behind the final row of chairs. A hymn was sung in Spanish, and when the people had subsided in their seats Fife stood forward from the pulpit. “Who among you here today has been ‘born again’?” he demanded.
A few hands went up, and the Reverend Fife smiled upon these ironically.
“What is it about those words, ‘born again,’ that make so many of us—Presbyterians, Catholics, and others—uncomfortable? It’s that they have been appropriated by a very narrow segment of Christianity to mean people who are against communism, against abortion, against change. But that isn’t what being born again means to us, is it? It better not be!” the Reverend Fife cried. “What do people mean when they speak of the ‘old-time religion’? They mean the religion of a day that is gone, when religion was the support of an unjust system, and the privileged class that owned the system was religious! While what we mean by being born again is to realize how the culture and the society corrupt our values and corrupt us, and to turn away from those values and from that society.” The Reverend Fife showed the points of his white teeth in an expression that appeared to be a smile.
The congregation sang another hymn, and then a Latin man rose and played briefly on a kind of wind instrument; he was followed by the black woman at the piano singing “Amazing Grace” in the style of a Negro revival. After the first verse the people joined in and finished the remaining ones with her. A Spanish gentleman in a gray suit came forward and translated for a very dark young Salvadoran who wished to thank Southside Presbyterian for its support and shelter. When he had spoken two other Salvadorans rose to express their gratitude, moving the Reverend Fife to exclaim: “See? We’re ‘born again’—we just sang ‘Amazing Grace’ and now we’re having testimonials!” A visitor to Southside Presbyterian pointed out that “Amazing Grace” had been written by a sea captain aboard his slaver when “he realized that he was part of a system he didn’t want to be part of anymore” and turned his vessel around. Another visitor, like the first an inhabitant of the Upper Midwest, announced: “The folks at St. Luke’s say hello!”
Various people stood to make other announcements. A tweedy-looking man reminded the congregation of the Thursday prayer vigil at the federal building downtown, “with which”—addressing the Reverend Fife—”you are familiar!” “I am well acquainted with it,” Fife acknowledged, displaying his teeth. Someone else brought up a potluck dinner at which the Southside delegation to the presidential elections in Nicaragua was expected to report what it had witnessed in Managua, and a woman gave the date for a children’s march in downtown Tucson in support of the Salvadoran people.
Following the service, the Reverend Fife baptized an infant, “child of Cecil Billingsley and Joelle Waldron.” The choir celebrated by singing a syncopated hymn and accompanying it with the clapping of hands, while a young black woman in a scarlet dress boogied to the music. As the congregation filed out into the fresh and shiny morning, a small girl tugged at the Reverend’s robe. He bent to her, they whispered, and suddenly he laughed and swung her onto his shoulder where she seized the rope overhead and rang the church bell loudly, twice.