Presbyterian pastor stands with today's sanctuary movement

Rev. Charles Booker holds signs at the launch of a D.C.-Maryland-Virginia regional network of sanctuary congregations in Washington, D.C., March 21, at Foundry United Methodist Church. (NCR photo/Rick Reinhard)
Rev. Charles Booker holds signs at the launch of a D.C.-Maryland-Virginia regional network of sanctuary congregations in Washington, D.C., March 21, at Foundry United Methodist Church. (NCR photo/Rick Reinhard)

by Colman McCarthy

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It was in a Tucson barrio in 1991 that Charles Booker, a Presbyterian seminarian, came to know and never forget the "feet people"— strapped and desperate refugees fleeing U.S.-financed death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala. Booker was on an internship from his studies at the San Francisco Theological Seminary from which he would be ordained in 1995.

In Tucson, he joined the ministry of Pastor John Fife, co-founder of the sanctuary movement that, beginning in the 1980s, would grow to over 500 churches. Many would defy federal immigration laws by giving havens to the fleeing. Prosecutions of the safe houses, known as "The Sanctuary Trials," often followed.

Some 26 years after his acts of mercy in Tucson, when more than 70 refugees and torture survivors would sleep every night on the floor of John Fife's church, Charles Booker's passionate caring remains firm. Backed by the board of his Bethesda, Maryland, Presbyterian congregation, where he has served as pastor for eight years, a 4-by-6-foot sign on the front lawn reads, in large letters: "We Are A Sanctuary Church. Refugees Are Welcomed Here. So Are You."

Taking a stand is nothing out of character for Booker. During his 11 years from 1998 to 2009 pastoring at Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he traveled to Fort Benning, Georgia, to be among the thousands protesting what was then called the School of the Americas (SOA). The Army base was a training site for recruits from Latin American juntas. The number who would return to countries like El Salvador and Colombia to slay priests, nuns, social workers and union organizers was large enough for the operation to be called by its critics the "School of Assassins." For 26 years, the third weekend in November brought together demonstrators seeking to defund the operation. The date marks the anniversary of the November 1989 deaths of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter slain in El Salvador by graduates of SOA. The annual event is organized by the heroic Roy Bourgeois. (Last year, the event was moved to the U.S.-Mexico border to highlight militarization there.)

In 2001, Booker was arrested along with more than 100 trespassers at the base. He declined to pay a $5,000 fine and served three months in a federal prison in Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest the following year. "What was going on at Fort Benning," he recalls, "was really a school of terrorism on our own soil."

On Sunday, March 26, Booker hosted an early afternoon meeting in Fellowship Hall at his Bethesda Presbyterian Church to strategize with a dozen parishioners on the protective mechanics of having a "rapid response" for those vulnerable to deportation should they be captured at home, work or anywhere by Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents.

In a paper distributed by Booker, the three essentials include:

  • The ICE officer must have a warrant signed by a judge.
  • Without the presence of such a warrant, a person does not have to open the door.
  • If the person does not understand, they have a right to an interpreter.

Referring to the belief of Pope Francis, that "it is hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help," Booker hailed it as "a strong statement. It cuts to the very heart of our faith that where there is brokenness, where there is suffering, is where Christians are to be."

Should those fearful of deportation come to Bethesda Presbyterian, Fellowship Hall has a kitchen, a bathroom and space to house three or four people. Assuredly, no time limits would be imposed. Of the current expansion of deportation enforcement by the Trump administration, Booker speaks of the "long and sordid history of determining that if a person is illegal they don't have human rights. I think it's terrible, atrocious. It's something President Obama could have done more about. I wish he had. Deportations are nothing new. It's that now under Trump we are dealing with a higher profile of fear. Our country is addicted to security through fear. No major religion has scriptures that talk about fear. Christ and other prophets said fear not."

As a pastor who says that his congregation's "witness is less [about] what we believe than with whom we stand. Our answer to the injustices of the current deportation raids is to provide some hospitality to a few people who are vulnerable. … We have some amazing members in this church."

One of the supporters of both welcoming refugees and the minister behind it is Lisa Mensah who has been at Bethesda Presbyterian for eight years. "Pastor Booker," she said a few minutes before joining the encircled group, "lives, teaches and embodies love in action. He is a pastor who listens to and loves understanding the flock. He lets us be our true selves. What joy!"

[Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace, a Washington non-profit.]

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