SANCTUARY A Story of American Conscience And Law in Collision By Ann Crittenden Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 396 pp. $21.95

CONVICTIONS OF THE HEART Jim Corbett and The Sanctuary Movement By Miriam Davidson University of Arizona Press. 187 pp. $22.50

THE AMERICAN SANCTUARY MOVEMENT By Robert Tomsho Texas Monthly Press. 214 pp. $18.95

ON MARCH 24, 1983, a friend invited me to an evening service at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington. I remember the date because it was the third anniversary of the murder in San Salvador of Archbishop Oscar Romero, an event that verified that the age of martyrs had now arrived in full bloodsoaking force in Central America. On this night at Luther Place, the church at 14th and Vermont Avenue NW where the gospel is honored daily in the feeding and housing of poor people, some unmartyred El Salvadorans had gathered. Four women and men -- all well-spoken, with soulful eyes and wearing farmer's bandanas over their lower faces -- were being given sanctuary by Luther Place's pastor and congregation. A liturgy of welcome was offered as part of the worship service.

On the same day in such cities as Tucson, Seattle and Boston, other churches were announcing that they were opening their doors to Central American refugees. In time, more than 300 congregations would see the scriptural justification and political rightness of providing asylum to war-fleeing Salvadorans, Guatemalans and others. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, backed by the State Department, said that most of them were here as "economic migrants," not victims of persecution which would have made their entry legal. One of the masked Salvadorans at Luther Place would testify two years later at congressional hearings about the "economic migrant" theory: "I had to leave El Salvador after the death squads visited my home. They were looking for me because I was helping the displaced in the refugee camps . . . The money sent by the Reagan administration to the Salvadoran government is killing our people and killing more refugees."

By 1983, a year that saw 10,000 civilian deaths in El Salvador and Guatemala, the INS was on the hunt both for people crossing the U.S. border illegally and for those helping them. Criminals all, said the Feds. Ann Crittenden, a former New York Times reporter known for researching the facts to support her conclusions, writes of that time: "The Justice Department and the Immigration Service were traditionally the hard-boiled naysayers of refugee admissions, while the State Department had historically acted as their advocate, usually because admissions served broader foreign policy goals. In the case of the Central Americans, however, the normal balance broke down. The new men responsible for Central America at State tended to be of the right, ideological hardliners who saw the conflict in the region as an East-West struggle for power. They were anxious to support the Salvadoran and Guatemalan militaries in their struggle against leftists and as a bulwark against the Sandinistas. As a result, State as well as Justice stood against the refugees, in a united front that was fatal to their cause."

Crittenden writes in Sanctuary: A Story of American Conscience and the Law in Collision of how a group of clergy and lay people in Arizona involved themselves in the kind of civil disobedience that Thoreau, Gandhi, King and the Quakers wrote about and practiced. That, plus a renewal of the spirit of the Underground Railroad that was a violation of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, set the Arizonans to defy the federal Refugee Act. They would be indicted, prosecuted and convicted. After a lengthy trial in 1985 in Tucson, five received three to five years probation, with several others getting suspended sentences and probation.

All the time spent in the courtroom, plus slogging through hundreds of hours of interviews, appears to have dulled Crittenden's prose style. One of the activists "was marching to a different drummer." A crucial fact "suddenly hit (the prosecutor) like a sledgehammer." A cross-examiner was "displaying all the aggressive brilliance that had made his reputation."

Despite the cliche's, Crittenden caught both the power and the ironies of the trial. The providers of sanctuary were involved in "classic refugee resettlement work, the kind the government had paid churches to do when the Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees had arrived in the 1970s. This time, however, the churches were operating on their own. Ironically, the Reagan administration's willingness to assist the latest victims of war and revolution gave birth to a very Reagan-like response: a private-sector initiative performing a service that had previously been endorsed and underwritten by the government."

BETTER WRITING but less detailed reporting is found in Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement, Miriam Davidson's account of Jim Corbett's work with refugees beginning in 1981. A Westerner educated in the East -- undergraduate studies at Colgate, a master's degree in philosophy from Harvard -- Corbett eventually settled in southern Arizona. He was a Quaker and a student of nonviolence, pushed from within by the traditional Friends' speak-truth-to-power conviction that it isn't enough merely to send off another "petition addressed to those who command the war machine." That is only a "ritual venting of gripes, simply releasing pressure and permitting the dissenter to go about his daily business while ignoring the refugees in his midst . . . We are being tempted to dismiss the refugees and accept the reign of terror because this is essential to belief in the Kingdom of Money's myth of the Benign Center -- that there really is no fundamental choice to be made between the Kingdom of Love and the Kingdom of Money; we can, after all take our stand in the middle and serve both."

Davidson carefully exposes the power and biases of Arizona justice as it came down on Corbett. The district judge in the 1985 trial, of which Crittenden also wrote, was Earl H. Carroll. He had ruled that the use of government undercover informants and concealed tape recorders in churches was proper. Carroll put down Corbett and the defendants as part of "the so-called sanctuary movement" which was "in simplest terms, an alien smuggling case." Davidson reports a prospective juror telling "Judge Carroll that he's heard about a benefit rock concert for the Arizona Sanctuary Defense Fund, 'but I thought sanctuary was something for the birds.' Amid laughter, the judge responded, 'There's a comment there, but I won't pick that up, either.' "

In the end, Carroll, a conservative Democrat, forbade the defendants to present evidence of persecution in Central America, international law or that U.S. asylum policies were unfair. "The judge," Davidson writes, "had the sanctuary workers in the same Catch 22 that the INS had the Salvadorans and Guatemalans since 1980. Carroll's ruling ensured that real questions raised by sanctuary -- whether the U.S. government was violating refugee rights, or whether Corbett and the others had any recourse to going around the law -- would not even be considered by the jury."

Corbett's character was captured well by Davidson. His commitment to the thousands of refugees he served went beyond social work compassion, even as rare as that is. Davidson writes: "St. Paul said, 'If you want peace, seek justice.' Corbett turned this around to say, 'If you want justice, seek peace.' Pacifism is often characterized as a copout, as fuzzy-headed utopianism, as pathetically naive. Yet Corbett demonstrated by his work with refugees that nonviolence can be at least as powerful and effective a weapon as violence. His positive vision of the future kept him from being cynical or defeatist . . . He had faith that the peaceful actions of individuals, or small groups, could make as much of a difference as the cries of thousands. He was right."

WHILE CRITTENDEN and Davidson report on the Arizona branch of the movement, Robert Tomsho, a columnist for Dallas Life Magazine, studies it nationally. He tells of the weekly "grimgram," the cable sent from the U.S. embassy in San Salvador on the number of killings in the past seven days: "In the cable for the week of March 20-26, 1982 -- the same week the first North American churches were declaring sanctuary, U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton informed Washington that the Salvadoran press had reported the deaths of 98 persons . . . Drawn from news accounts, the U.S. Embassy's tally was usually the most conservative. Many of the murders and disappearances occurred in the countryside, far from the eyes of the Salvadoran press."

Tomsho, a perceptive reporter, as well as one not afraid of legwork, sees beyond the image that hordes of refugees are fleeing to the United States because no higher calling exists. In fact, Central Americans prefer to stay in their homelands. Before the civil war began in El Salvador, no mass exodus was occurring, even though the destitution was as severe. Nor were Guatemalans running north. "Our future is in El Salvador," Tomsho quotes a refugee he interviewed in a park in San Francisco. "It is where our families are. It is where our customs are. Our land is waiting for us. Our hopes to return are very distant, but for most of us, the future is not here in the United States."

The exile of this and some 500,000 other Central Americans is covered well by these three journalists. They sympathized with the refugees and their North American befrienders. Is taking sides one-sidedness? Not here. It's a form of honoring facts, as they turn up in the lives of victims. Not to side with the victims of the Reagan-Abrams-Shultz policies in Central America is to separate the facts of suffering from the lives of the sufferers. These authors are saying, with proper skill and fervor, that no separation is possible.

The reviewer is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group and a Washington Post staff writer.