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Reflecting on lessons learned from offering Sanctuary to Central Americans in Grand Rapids in the 1980s

August 20, 2020

I was recently interviewed by a Doctoral candidate at Harvard, who has been interviewing people about the Central American Sanctuary Movement. Our conversation was lively and it got me thinking and reflecting on the the process and work of doing Sanctuary in the 1980s in Grand Rapids.

What follows is a recounting of the Sanctuary work of the Koinonia House, which I was a part of. A version of this post will also be included in the forthcoming book, A People’s History of Grand Rapids.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, US funded counter-insurgency wars were being waged in El Salvador and Guatemala. Activists along the US/Mexican border began to see a sharp rise in the number of political refugees entering the country.

As communities began to offer safety to these refugees, they realized that all of them had a similar narrative. Each of the refugees told them that they fled their country because they either witnessed the torture and murder of family members or they themselves were torture survivors.

The US financed death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala were the primary source of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people coming from Central America in the 1980s. US activists began to hear these stories in greater numbers and since the Reagan administration did not acknowledge Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugees as being political refugees, the Central American Sanctuary Movement was born.

The Central American Sanctuary Movement was begun by US faith-based communities that believed that they should offer sanctuary for their fellow humans who were fleeing violence, even if it meant violating US laws.

Beginning in the Southwestern part of the country, Sanctuaries began popping up, where faith-based groups began to house people fleeing violence and to provide them with a forum to tell their stories.

Soon there were hundreds of places declaring themselves a sanctuary for Central American refugee, with three places declaring in Michigan themselves a sanctuary – Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids.

The Grand Rapids Sanctuary was run by members of the Koinonia House, of which I was a part of. The Koinonia House was a housing collective that had begun in 1984 and did much of their organizing around resisting US Policy in Central America. We had participated in numerous protests, marches, letter writing campaigns and even engaged in civil disobedience at local Congressional offices. However, we all felt that something more needed to be done and we decided that we needed to use our collective privilege to practice radical hospitality for those who had fled their countries because of the US-backed repression in El Salvador and Guatemala.

The seven of us, who were members of the Koinonia House, decided in the fall of 1985 to be part of the Central American Sanctuary Movement and traveled to Chicago to meet with the national coordinator of the project, the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America.

One major aspect of becoming a Sanctuary was the need for those seeking to declare themselves a Sanctuary to obtain support from the community, especially in the form of letters. Such letters were a sign that Koinonia House would indeed be trusted with doing the work and it signaled to the federal authorities that those who signed the letters stood with the members of the Grand Rapids Sanctuary. After soliciting letters, Koinonia House received nearly two dozen endorsements from churches, community organizations, university groups, individuals and parents with whom we had developed a relationship with. Holy Trinity Episcopal Church was one of the organizations to endorse our efforts. Here is what they said: 

We feel strongly this is the loving and compassionate response which the church should and must take in this situation, and sanctuary has long been established within the history and tradition of the church. So we support your compassionate and courageous stand, and are ready to support you in whatever way is possible.

Once the Koinonia House had significant community support for becoming a Sanctuary, we set a date to declare ourselves as a place that would defy the federal government and provide sanctuary to Central American refugees.

We declared ourselves a Sanctuary in the fall of 1986 on the steps of the Gerald R. Ford Federal building in downtown Grand Rapids, as it was custom to make this kind of a declaration public. Members of the Detroit and Lansing Sanctuaries were present, with Fr. Dick Preston leading a ceremony to honor the public commitment being taken by our community.

Several months later, the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America contacted us to let us know that they had 2 Indigenous families from Guatemala in need of Sanctuary.

In April of 1987, six adults and one child arrived in Grand Rapids at the Koinonia House. A few days later a press conference was held on the front porch of the Koinonia House and this marked the beginning of several years that the Grand Rapids Sanctuary offered a safe haven for those who were fleeing violence in Central America. 

Once the families arrived, we gave them time to get settled in. However, after a few weeks of becoming acclimated to West Michigan, we began organizing speaking opportunities for the Guatemalans living with us in sanctuary.

The Central American Sanctuary Movement had two main goals. First, was the commitment to offer a safe place for people to live who were fleeing political violence. The second part of the work was to try to influence public opinion and eventually change the national policy around US support for the counter-insurgency wars in Central America.

We never fully knew how much we were under surveillance, but within the first month of offering Sanctuary to the Guatemalans that had arrived, two FBI agents showed up one day at our door. Not knowing who they were, the Guatemalans let them in. I was upstairs doing some work, when one of the Guatemalans came to get me. The FBI agents introduced themselves and then said, “So, what’s going on here?” I responded by saying, “Since you are FBI, we have to assume that you know exactly what is going on here. However, if you don’t have a warrant, then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Right at that moment there were several friends who had stopped by, so we invited them in and told said in a loud voice that the FBI agents were here to harass and intimidate us. Fortunately, the FBI agents left. This was a clear lesson about the importance of being public about the Sanctuary work and how being public and visible could prevent us from being arrested and the Guatemalans from being deported. 

Over the next several years the families who were in sanctuary in Grand Rapids spoke on campuses, in churches and with community-based organizations. The Guatemalans shared their personal stories and discussed how US policy was creating more terror and violence in their country. Speaking publicly for those in Sanctuary in Grand Rapids was never an easy task. The Guatemalans who were in Sanctuary in Grand Rapids spoke Qanjobal, one of 23 Mayan dialects. Therefore, those who spoke did so in Spanish, which was their second language. Quite often the Guatemalans in Sanctuary would say that there are certain words in Qanjobal that didn’t translate well, which made it difficult for them to articulate their experiences completely.

Another lesson learned had to do with how those of us with privilege take little things for granted, especially when it came to the constant terror that the families in Sanctuary had experienced. For example, one day, after being at a local hospital with one of the families, we were walking outside to get to one of the surface parking lots. While making our way to the car, one of the hospital helicopters was approaching, and just like that, the Guatemalan family took off running. It did not dawn on me immediately, but I soon realized that their experience of helicopters was one of terror, since gun fire would come from the helicopters in their communities as part of the US counterinsurgency war.

After a decade, the families were eventually able to gain legal status with the assistance of some amazing immigration lawyers. The two original families that were part of Sanctuary, had more children and those children are now in their 30’s. In 1992, on October 12, Indigenous People’s Day, we signed the title over to the Guatemalan families as a small way of making restitution for the 500 years of genocide that we all have benefitted from.

One of the original Sanctuary families still lives in the house and often uses that space as a place for new Guatemalan families to come to, get settled and save up money that would allow them to find their own place. This family has has been practicing radical hospitality, demonstrating the very solidarity we had set out to practice in 1987 when our house participated in the Central American Sanctuary Movement.

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