SAN FRANCISCO -- They sheltered Vietnam War resisters in the 1970s and Central Americans in the 1980s. Now, the same churches have extended their protection to soldiers refusing service in the Persian Gulf.
Three San Francisco area parishes and the University Baptist Church in Seattle are believed to be the first U.S. congregations to publicly offer refuge to soldiers who refuse to serve in the Middle East.
"We will be with them when they are told they have no alternatives left -- they either go to jail, or AWOL or to war," said the Rev. Gustav Schultz of the University Lutheran Church in Berkeley, whose 150-member congregation voted unanimously in December to offer sanctuary.
The churches are prepared to house any soldiers who are absent without leave.
"Shelter is the essence of what we would mean. That's the biblical understanding of sanctuary," said the Rev. Diana Gibson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, where the 15 governing body members unanimously approved the offer in December.
The Rev. Marilyn Chilcote of the Beacon Street Presbyterian Fellowship in Oakland called the shelter offer by her 25-member congregation "the best Christian education we can provide our children.
"They see the community responding according to the Gospel to the most critical issues of the day."
The Rev. Donovan Cook of University Baptist Church in Seattle said he has been contacted by at least three soldiers at Fort Lewis who want legal assistance.
Schultz's church is providing free legal assistance for National Guard reservist Liann Noble, 25, a Roman Catholic and the daughter of an Army recruiter, who applied for discharge as a conscientious objector.
"The church has been very supportive, just knowing they are there if all heck breaks loose," said Noble, a San Francisco State University art therapy student, who still reports to the Guard.
Noble, a reserve medic, said Reserve recruiters stressed civil defense work such as earthquake and flood relief.
"Then when the crisis came, I asked myself, 'Can I kill someone?' " said Noble, who volunteered three years ago.
The church also is helping a 21-year-old Marine reservist who was raised as a Muslim and filed for conscientious objector status.
Schultz's congregation first offered sanctuary in 1971 to Vietnam War resisters and was joined eventually by 27 churches in the region. By March 1982, the church was using private homes to sequester illegal Central Americans, who said they faced death squads in their homelands if deported.
The four congregations said they are not violating the law because they agreed not to bar the police from their chapels or to lie to authorities.
Schultz said there is no law in the United States establishing that officers may not violate a church sanctuary. But nonetheless, he said, "police are very reluctant to come in."