The Southside Presbyterian Church sits on a corner of its scraggly neighborhood like a divine afterthought -- a little white and blue stucco building surrounded by a low chain-link fence, weeds, cactus and rusting playground equipment.

According to government prosecutors and court testimony, this shabby, sun-baked sanctuary has been the center of an international conspiracy to defy U.S. immigration laws. While black-haired children sang a spiritual at evening choir practice last week, a small army of attorneys made closing arguments to the jury in one of the harshest American church-state clashes of this century.

After a six-month trial, a verdict is expected as soon as today for nine Americans and two Mexicans charged with conspiracy to smuggle Central Americans into the United States. Federal authorities prosecuted the 11 activist Christians in hopes of discouraging a flood of illegal immigrants from the south and a movement that has enlisted more than 270 "sanctuary" churches nationwide

The trial has forged a closer bond between the defendants -- two Roman Catholic priests, a Catholic nun, a Presbyterian minister and seven lay workers from assorted denominations -- than they experienced as far-flung participants in an alleged refugee "underground railroad." It also has stimulated heated debates among them.

"You have this whole diverse group trying to operate by consensus," said the Rev. John M. Fife, pastor of Southside Presbyterian, "because, by golly, one thing we won't have is anyone being singled out as leader from these 11 very determined people." He smiles at the memory of their often turbulent strategy discussions.

Through their 12 attorneys, the 11 Sanctuary workers argue that their activities were legal under the 1980 Refugee Act, which provides asylum for anyone with a "well-founded fear of persecution" at home, but their backgrounds and motives are more diverse than their legal positions. Their stories can be understood as a tale of three cities: Tucson, Phoenix and the Mexican-American border town of Nogales.

At 46, Fife is seen by many here as the movement's spiritual heart, and most of the local residents crowding the courtroom attend his Southside church. It began as a small mission to destitute Indian tribes and over the decades became the most politically active church in a city of 330,000 that has thrived on mining, tourism, defense contracts and the University of Arizona.

Fife says he and his wife, Marianne, fell in love with Arizona when he came from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the 1960s to work during the summers with poor blacks, Latinos and Indians. He is tall, razor-thin and emotional, a man who can be mesmerized by the sight of his children's choir through a sanctuary window or enraged by the testimony of the key federal informer, Jesus Cruz. As he infiltrated the movement, Cruz spent much time ingratiating himself with church members and sanctuary volunteers.

Southside's pastor in the 50s and early 60s was a preeminent black civil rights leader whose departure caused membership to fall off. When Fife took over in 1970, "there were 56 members on the rolls, and I could only find 23 of them," he said. He restored it as a center of political action, lobbying for community facilities, pushing for Indian housing and encouraging a diverse ethnic membership.

Fife served on a national Presbyterian council that negotiated U.S. corporate action against apartheid in South Africa, torture in Central America and Third World marketing of infant formula. Southside's membership rose to 147, although the church still needed a $7,000 annual subsidy from the national denomination to maintain its $42,000 annual budget, including Fife's $17,000 salary.

When Jim Corbett came to Fife in 1981 with stories of Salvadoran refugees being deported despite death threats back home, it seemed a natural cause for the church. Corbett, who now shares the defense table with Fife, is 52, a Quaker and former rancher who retired because of severe arthritis.

Corbett quietly helped refugees across the border and distributed leaflets in Mexico explaining U.S. asylum law. "I probably never would have become involved if I had not met refugees who really needed my help," he said, observing that he lacks ideological fire. "I can tolerate hearing about all kinds of injustice and not do anything about it."

Fife and Corbett were joined in their efforts -- and at the trial -- by Peggy Hutchison, 31, a Methodist and a University of Arizona graduate student; Nena MacDonald, 38, a nurse who worked in the movement here for two months in the summer of 1984, and Philip Willis-Conger.

Willis-Conger, 28, is son of former Methodist missionaries to Latin America and director of the Tucson Ecumenical Council's Task Force on Central America. A friend, Julia Schug, 71, remembers that the informer, Cruz, paid considerable attention to the young activist. When Willis-Conger married early last year, "Cruz even went to the wedding, if you can believe it," Schug said. "Oh, he was a stinko."

Had it not been for the trial, Willis-Conger would be attending the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Had it not been for the illness she suffered on a visit to Arizona, Sister Darlene Nicgorski might not be a defendant in the trial.

Nicgorski, 42, a nun with the Milwaukee-based School Sisters of St. Francis, had gone to Guatemala in 1980 to help establish a preschool. Later, she worked in Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico, encountering stories of torture and death that galvanized her opposition to U.S. support for what she saw as oppressive anticommunist movements in Central America.

She was visiting her parents in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1982 when she was struck by a severe pancreas infection. During her convalescence, she read and heard from friends about the budding sanctuary movement, seeing it as a way to draw attention to atrocities in Central America. She arranged to be assigned to the movement in Phoenix, and the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, an interdenominational group, gave her a small stipend to rent an apartment that served as home, office and refuge for at least one Salvadoran woman.

Nicgorski helped route refugees through Phoenix to other U.S. cities and was instrumental, colleagues say, in persuading many Midwestern churches to join the movement. Working with her in Phoenix was Wendy LeWin, 26, former federal employe who had helped Cuban refugees at three government installations. Now among the 11 defendants, she supports herself as a waitress and dishwasher.

Nicgorski was out of town the day she was indicted, and INS agents searched her apartment. Their videotape pans twice across a wall poster, and an investigator reads it aloud: "Dump the Dinosaur Reagan. Vote Democrat in 1984." Court papers show that an investigator seized an article she had written for a task-force newsletter and circled the words "poor and oppressed," writing in the margin, "Marxist ideology."

At one of the trial's most difficult junctures, the defense decision to rest its case without presenting witnesses, she says she was never convinced that they should depend on the weakness of the government's case. But she bowed to the majority, which argued that U.S. District Court Judge Earl H. Carroll was so determined to bar testimony on religious and political motives that their attempts to tell their stories would have been meaningless.

"We would not have been able to tell the truth, not even in part," Corbett said.

The Rev. Ramon Dagoberto Quinones, 50, a parish priest in Nogales, Mexico, could have ended his chapter of the story as soon as he was indicted: Interviewed through an interpreter, Quinones said attorneys told him that as a Mexican citizen, he could have ignored the indictment and escaped arrest. Mexican authorities had no quarrel with him, he said, even when he helped Corbett distribute leaflets to Central American prisoners in the Nogales jail.

But he insisted on trying to prove that he had done nothing illegal. If he had ducked, he said, "I would have felt like I would have to petition the U.S. government every time I wanted to feed this person or provide lodging for that person, to guide this one or support that one."

Dressed in a gray suit and clerical collar, his graying hair combed in a small pompador, Quinones uses earphones to follow court proceedings through an interpreter. He jokes often and seems relaxed, although his codefendants worry about his heart condition.

His cheery demeanor clouds only at the mention of the trial judge. Carroll made clear at the outset that he considered this a simple smuggling case that should not digress into foreign policy or moral issues. Defense attorneys repeatedly have asked Carroll to disqualify himself for bias against their cause and Latinos. His conduct, Quinones said grimly, completely refutes the common Latin American opinion that U.S. justice "cannot be corrupted."

Quinones has commuted daily to the trial, driving the 55 miles from Nogales in his four-cylinder blue Ford. He awakes at 5 a.m. to make parish visits on the way and returns to Nogales by about 7 p.m. to conduct evening mass and other clerical chores before retiring at 11 p.m.

American Nogales contributed two defendants to the trial: Tony Clark, 37, a former boxer turned priest, and Mary K. Doan Espinoza, 31, the coordinator of religious education for Clark's church. The other defendant from Mexican Nogales is lay worker Maria del Socorro Pardo Viuda de Aguilar, 58.

Introspective and religious, the defendants tried to foster harmony with retreats before the trial to discuss and pray over their different philosophies. Each Tuesday when the trial recessed, most of the 11 have strolled a short block from the courthouse at a fashionable mall of adobe shops and offices to rehash the week's events in a conference room neartheir lawyers' office.

The latest issue, Corbett said, is whether they can count on the press to give them a quiet moment of prayer in a nearby church before any post-verdict news conference.

The group has tried to leave room for the different agendas each carries to court, Nicgorski said. "For me, Central America is the real issue," she said, "whereas for Father Quinones and Father Clark, this is only one part of 10 different things they do in their ministry."

Most of the defendants say their sanctuary work has been taken up by others. All say they will return to the movement even if they must go to prison first.

Fife said church elders have assumed most of his pastoral duties, and two or three Central American refugees are living at the church, Fife said. A sign in front still says in Spanish: "This is a sanctuary for the oppressed of Central America."

Fife said his marriage has improved since the indictment: His wife prefers the certainty of the trial to the uncertainty that preceded his indictment. Meanwhile, Fife has proven as tolerant of family diversity as he is of diversity among the defendants.

In the midst of his Sanctuary work, one of his two sons announced that he had decided to become a police officer. Briefly taken aback, Fife said he recovered enough to say, "All right, I have just one thing I have to ask you: Don't join the Border Patrol."