Each had soulful brown eyes that seemed weary at having seen too much death. Each told stories of narrow escapes from government violence, of knocks at the door and massacres in the night. Each wondered if Americans understood their suffering.

They were refugees from El Salvador. One was a 21-year-old mother holding a child. On this evening, the five were in the sanctuary of a Lutheran church that is less than a mile from the White House and less than a step from civil disobedience against U.S. immigration laws. If caught, all face deportation by the Reagan administration.

The congregation's decision to provide temporary shelter to the five Salvadorans is part of a national response to the presence of an estimated 100,000 refugees who have slipped into the United States in the past three years. According to the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, which has organized the national sanctuary movement, 250 parishes in all parts of the nation are giving asylum to Salvadorans.

Basic hospitality is provided: beds, food, health care and someone to talk with. The talking may be the most comforting gift to the Salvadorans, because they are people overwhelmed with evidence that American leaders do not listen to them. Oscar Romero, the murdered archbishop, pleaded with the Carter administration in early 1980 not to send weapons. He was ignored. Today, American bishops who sponsor priests and nuns in El Salvador ask the Reagan administration to stop the military aid. They are ignored.

The policy of more weapons has caused more death, and more death has created more refugees whose only choice was to flee. The Salvadorans at the Lutheran church--one was a carpenter, another a math teacher--told of being hunted by death squads. The young mother said she was seen as an enemy of the government because she worked with a Catholic relief service in San Salvador.

As more churches give sanctuary to more illegal aliens, the Reagan administration has decided to look the other way. The Immigration and Naturalization Service says it will not be dispatching agents to sweep out the churches. "We don't want a confrontation," said an official.

Nor another embarrassing defeat in the courts. Two years ago when Haitian boat people arrived parched and starving on the shores of south Florida, the administration swept them off to prison. They were fleeing their country for economic reasons, said the Justice Department, not because of political repression from the Duvalier regime. Our taste in refugees seems to run from Russian ballerinas to Chinese tennis stars. The Salvadorans should learn to dance or develop their forehands.

Federal courts eventually freed the Haitians, in a decision that was legally proper but no great humanitarian victory. It merely granted the boat people the humblest of desires: a preference for poverty in America to poverty in Haiti.

A test case in the courts over Salvadoran refugees is precisely what the Reagan administration doesn't want now. It has been arguing that the Salvadoran government is defending itself against Soviet- and Cuban-inspired leftists. To have this thrown out of court, and replaced with a decision that the U.S.-backed government in El Salvador is killing its own people and forcing them to flee or be slaughtered, would be the ultimate rebuke.

For the refugees, all that stands between them and the administration's zeal for deportation is legal paperwork. The INS reports that in fiscal year 1981 it expelled 10,500 Salvadorans. In 1982 the number declined to 5,300. No swelling of mercy had overtaken the Reagan administration. The decline reflected the increase in asylum applications. The law states that an alien can't be sent back to his country while the asylum application is pending.

Many Salvadorans, even those who can afford the legal costs, see this route as near-hopeless. About 24,000 applications for asylum have been filed, but to date fewer than 100 have been approved.

Charges have been made that the churches involved in the sanctuary movement are publicity seekers. The churches are the first to agree, except that the publicity they seek is not for themselves but for the effects of the Reagan policies in Central America. A live human being in your midst giving the details of a death squad armed with American weapons lining up peasants to be shot in the town square is more compelling than another report from touring congressmen on human-rights violations in El Salvador.

With the message presented that way, the Salvadoran refugees deserve sanctuary. They are fugitives from injustice.