A Mexican Madonna with child sits at the entrance to the sanctuary of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz. By her left side is a machete and straw hat. By her right side is a water jug. Around her is a doorframe with a lizard.
Yes, a lizard.
The lizard represents U.S. government agents who infiltrated the church in the 1980s to spy on the congregation.
Back then, the government was apparently afraid of the church. The government was funding death squads in Central America, and the church sparked the Sanctuary Movement, which sheltered those fleeing the death squads.
The church’s pastor was John Fife.
Fife served the church for 35 years. He co-founded the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. He was convicted in 1986 of violating the nation’s immigration laws and served five years’ probation. He was elected moderator of the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1992.
In 2004, he and Gene Lefebvre co-founded No More Deaths (NMD) or No Mas Muertes, a faith-based humanitarian group with the slogan “Humanitarian aid is never a crime.”
A native of Arizona, Lefebvre was also a Presbyterian pastor and leader of the Sanctuary Movement. He served churches in California and Arizona before retiring to Tucson.
Both Lefebvre and Fife are in their 70s and belong to the church with the bronze statue of Madonna and the lizard, symbols of goodness and trickery.
Lefebvre and Fife are two crusty social justice saints who talk immigration reform and walk the immigration trails. They know the inevitable tension between the church and the state, the conflict between obeying the law and challenging unjust laws.
EthicsDaily.com interviewed them in Arizona.
“Of the 2,000 mile border with Mexico from California to … Texas, the Arizona border is the area where most of the traffic has been pushed by the policies of the United States border patrol,” said Lefebvre. “Since 1994, they sealed up cities and they pushed people out into the deserts.”
He added that half the deaths of undocumented immigrants occur in the Tucson sector that runs some 260 miles.
He estimated there are 15 law enforcement agents per mile on the Arizona border.
Despite the number of agents with high-tech equipment and the harshness of the desert, migrants keep crossing the border and risking their lives in search of employment.
“They come at night without light,” said Lefebvre. “They are like ghosts moving through the desert.”
They cross the border because they have no choice, he said, citing conversations in which migrants say, “There is no food where we live. The jobs we used to have are gone. There is no food for our families.”
Recalling the history of NMD, Fife said, “We began as the deaths began to mount here in the Sonoran Desert in about the year 2000.”
He said when they learned that most deaths were from dehydration, they decided to put out 55-gallon water drums marked by 30-foot flag poles, enabling migrants to know where water was available. The organization was named Humane Borders.
In 2002, they started Samaritans, a faith-based group of volunteers who patrol the desert in four-wheel vehicles during the hottest months of the year providing emergency medical aid, food and water to migrants.
Then, Fife and Lefebvre began NMD, a faith-based organization of volunteers who are community centered and committed to nonviolence and dialogue with the government.
NMD volunteers walk the “death trails,” leaving water jugs and food for migrants.
“We begin with the victims,” said Lefebvre. “Our work is always relevant to their needs. It is not for us a matter of protest or political consequences.”
He noted that the desert “looks like a war zone” with lots of guns carried by law enforcement, drug smugglers, bandits, ranchers and the militia.
But NMD is “strictly nonviolent,” which helps explain why in seven years with 500 volunteers a year that no incidents of violence have been aimed at their volunteers.
Fife pointed out: “Border patrol understands, and has understood from the very beginning, the importance of the work that we do out there to save lives. I’ve never talked to an agent that wasn’t deeply disturbed by the number of deaths and finding bodies out there.”
They said that more than 5,000 deaths have been confirmed since 2001, although they noted the actual death count is inexact because the desert efficiently disposes of the dead. They believe that perhaps only one out of five bodies is found.
“In the summertime when No More Deaths is in the camps and hiking the migrant trails every day, the most common form of distress that we find people in … are from severe dehydration and drinking literally bad water… And then that leads to just serious disorientation, and when that happens they find people who have literally died after taking off all their clothes,” said Fife.
Fife and Lefebvre have been drum majors for justice for too long to be wild-eyed prophets. They are seasoned prophets who know their context – the desert, the militarization of the border, the needs of migrants and the urgent demand for reform.
And they know what God expects from them.
“We are there because the Bible says over and over again that we have to care for the alien in our midst as one of our own… Remember that God says… ‘You were once aliens in the land of Egypt’ … Jesus doesn’t leave us any option at all,” said Fife. “If we say we love Jesus, then Jesus says in Matthew 25 that ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sick, I was in prison, I was an alien stranger and as you do it to these you do it to me.'”
He emphasized that Matthew 25 describes completely the situation of a migrant in the desert – hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked and imprisoned.
“The Bible verse that is most foundational for me is from Matthew 25,” said Lefebvre. “That’s the core of our faith.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.