The Gospel reading last Sunday at the Church of the Pilgrims dealt with the parable of the prodigal son.

Most good, God-fearing churchgoers usually identify with the other son -- the one who stayed home and worked while his elder brother went off to squander his birthright on riotous living and sin, said the Rev. John Fife, guest preacher for the day at the Presbyterian church in Northwest Washington.

"But along the border of southern Arizona, I think we've got the parable's application backwards," said the Tucson pastor. "The sin we have lived along the border of southern Arizona has to do with death squads and terror being inflicted upon the people of Central America."

The Presbyterian pastor is one of 11 Sanctuary workers currently being tried in federal court in Tucson for allegedly aiding and sheltering Central American refugees who have entered the country illegally.

Linking the parable to U.S. policy in Central America, Fife said, "For North Americans, it is sin unto death. We have provided the guns; we have trained the torturers; we have provided the training in counterinsurgency warfare, and the pain and suffering is beyond belief."

The victims, he continued, "flee across our borders and, God help us, people we pay and train and equip are hunting them down and sending them back."

The refugees "come to our churches and they expect to find that we really meant it when we said that in them is a sanctuary, a place of holiness and peace."

For American Christians, he continued, "if you are going to talk about sin in the world today, we are the elder brother who had gone off to the dissolute land, who have to come back for God's forgiveness."

Without specifically mentioning the prolonged trial in which he is involved, Fife offered the religious rationale for the Sanctuary movement.

The judge in the sanctuary trial has ruled that defendants may not raise this religious motivation in court.

"We are obedient to our nation," he said, but "if there is a conflict, we can't be good citizens of a nation which abandons the ways of God.

"When we find our government telling us we are under obligation to turn innocent human beings, victims of torture chambers, over to be sent back, we could not do that."