TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Saturday night the congregation at Southside Presbyterian Church celebrated 50 years since Reverend John Fife.
Now retired, Fife and his team in the early 1980s opened the church doors to families and individuals fleeing violence in Central America. It was the start of the sanctuary movement that would eventually gain nationwide support.
"This was the first place in the country," he said, walking through the church's kitchen and dinning area. "This is a kind of sacred place. Folks slept on the floor here."
Providing a safe place for refugees, Southside Presbyterian opened its doors to controversy as well.
"We got all kinds of messages saying 'We're going to come down and burn that church down'...I even got death threats," said Fife.
Fife was one of several church members to be arrested for what they were doing. He said a jury wouldn't follow through on any charges. The Central American refugees were later granted temporary protected states and the deportations stopped.
The work of Southside Presbyterian did not.
Fife said they already had the facilities for helping others so they shared showers and food with the homeless in Tucson.
When illegal immigrants took to the streets for day labor jobs, the church provided them a parking lot for protection. The Southside Worker Center organizes the men to make sure no one is harassed or unpaid for work performed.
A pile of rocks is stacked near the church. Fife said each one represents an illegal immigrant who died in the desert after crossing the border. The Samaritans, another effort by the church, has been dropping off water in the desert in hopes of preventing any more death.
Fife said all the programs came from a simple question posed to the members of the church.
"I hope this congregation, long after I'm gone, will continue to remember this history and continue to ask the basic question 'Where are people suffering, where are people being discriminated against, where are people's basic civil rights or human rights being violated?' and the church will be there," he said.
Saturday's celebration for Fife's ordination was also an opportunity to raise money for the church's nearly $2 million repair work.