Sanctuary Means Love

By Elizabeth Yeats, Set in the U.S.A.

Elizabeth Henderson, age 11 framed: colored pencil
Lisa Engelhardt, age 14

The call came late one night. “Can you give sanctuary to two young families fleeing Guatemala? They’re stranded in Mexico. We’re worried they aren’t getting enough to eat. Someone must help them across the border.”

Our Quaker meeting knew of the violence in Central America and the thousands fleeing from arrest and torture by their own governments. We slept in warm, comfortable beds and woke feeling safe each morning. We wanted to share this security with the refugees, as others were doing.

“We might break our government’s laws, but we would follow God’s law to help people in trouble,” one friend commented. “We are few, and we aren’t rich, but doesn’t God call us to share what we have?” asked another. An older woman reasoned, “If God means us to do this, the way will open. I think we should go ahead.” We became a Sanctuary.

When the call came, I wondered if we were ready to care for two families. Who would travel thousands of miles to the border to help them cross? Real human beings needed our help; would the way really open? 

In the morning the group asked my husband John to go. He spoke fluent Spanish and had worked with refugees. I waited to hear everyone was safe.

Border police arrested, tried, and fined or imprisoned U.S. citizens helping people cross the border illegally. John knew his family and the Quakers would help him. The danger for the refugees was far greater. If caught, border police would detain and deport them. Carlos was arrested four times for speaking against the government, and narrowly escaped being killed. If they sent him back, they would kill  him. Then what would happen to his young wife Maria and their baby Anna? 

John called to say that everyone had crossed safely.

In Mexico food had been scarce, so Anna and Maria grew too weak to travel. As a Guatemalan, Carlos could not work. So Mexicans in the Sanctuary Movement found them food and shelter until they grew strong enough to cross. John drove down winding roads to the lonely meeting place. He waited for hours as the family walked for miles toward him. It grew darker and more dangerous to travel.

When Carlos passed baby Anna to John, she screamed, grabbed his beard, and pulled hard. John was on the verge of screaming himself. Maria crossed next. Carlos and the other family crossed at another place for safety. With the tired mother and child, John drove back to town. He only saw car headlights, any of which could be border police.

Though frightened himself, John tried to talk to Maria, but she huddled with Anna. How frightened she must have been! Alone with a foreign man in the dark in a strange country! Only once the family reunited in town did Maria give John a shy smile. 

On their long journey across the U.S., the refugees stayed with a different family each night. Each would call ahead to the next safe house and say, “The Lone Ranger is here.” They gathered clothes and food, fueled the cars, and got ready to drive onward. 

Meanwhile, the way opened! Both families came to our Sanctuary. Friends prepared space, scheduled helpers, and practiced Spanish. One morning, John and I woke at five and drove over the mountains to pick them up. We arrived as everyone was having breakfast. Before driving home, we sat on the back porch, drank coffee, and passed around those beautiful babies.

Now Anna is four. Both families brought our community so much joy! They cared for our children, taught us Guatemalan cooking, and shared their music and poetry. Our meeting held vigils, prayer services, and educational events about Central America. We had times of fear, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings. But over and over, we worked, listened, and struggled, and the way opened. We took the next step in our experiment with caring for each other in the Sanctuary.