The Oberlin Sanctuary Project

The Overground Railroad

Above: "Underground Railway," environmental sculpture by Cameron Armstrong '77, in 1977. Installation in front of Talcott Hall on South Professor Street, Oberlin College. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, political crisis rocked El Salvador. Many ordinary citizens, prosecuted by the repressive junta government, were forced to flee the country. However, nearby countries often attempted to push refugees elsewhere. The United States—which supported the junta government—ignored the 1980 Refugee Act and blocked all but 3% of Salvadoran refugees from entering the country, claiming they were economic migrants looking for employment. Across America, a network of over fifty churches took part in the Overground Railroad to help Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees obtain Canadian visas and provide sanctuary in the meantime. The Overground Railroad helped refugees to apply for political asylum in America while waiting for Canada to process their immigration papers—an entirely legal tactic to delay any movements from the US government that took about six months. First Church in Oberlin was one such sanctuary, providing refuge for twenty individuals and four families from El Salvador and Guatemala between 1985 and 1989. 

The first family arrived in Oberlin in the spring of 1985, staying with the Oberlin Overground Railroad Citizen Coordinator, John Gates. The original discussions about joining the Sanctuary movement among the First Church congregation were contentious: as despite being legal, participating in the Overground Railroad meant risking fines or arrest. The majority approved, however, and offered money, food, transportation, tutoring, work opportunities, or housing. The cost of the process for a person was about $6,000 (about $13,000 in today’s currency) not including living expenses like medicine, food, or clothing.

The Coalition held many fundraisers to help pay for the refugees; bringing in playwrights focused on Central American politics to perform in 1985 and in 1988, selling prints of art made by the refugees, and putting on banquets. In addition to helping the refugees currently in transit, the Oberlin Overground Railroad Coalition continued to check in with the families when settled in Canada, helping separated members to reconnect or providing support and advice in times of hardship. The First Church branch of the Oberlin Overground Railroad took on refugees of all religious denominations. 

Oberlin students also got involved in the Sanctuary movement. The Central American Task Force (CATF), run by members of Third World House, organized protests against U.S. involvement in El Salvador, led educational seminars, and partnered with the nation-wide Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) to fundraise. Members of Oberlin College’s Humanist/Freethinker Union joined a different sanctuary network to prepare to provide housing for any illegal refugees that First Church could not take on without risking their legal refugees, though the need never came up. Many college students also volunteered at First Church and became members of the Oberlin Overground Railroad Coalition.

John Elder, Oberlin College, class year 1953, was First Church’s pastor at the time of the Overground Railroad and credited First Church’s involvement the Sanctuary Movement as part of their long history of helping refugees from around the world. After World War II, First Church began to help refugees reach and resettle in America. Starting slightly before the Overground Railroad, from 1975 through 1990, First Church sponsored refugees from the USSR, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. These refugees often stayed for longer than six months, becoming long term members of the community. First Church members provided places to live and work, community support, tutoring, and fundraising. When refugee camp bureaucracy held back family members—such as in one case where they were unofficially using a refugee family member as an interpreter—Elder pressured refugee camp administrators to get them back to their families. If the families felt it was time, the community raised funds to help them move away from Oberlin, though they often stayed in touch afterwards. 

First Church is currently a designated Sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and refugees, and has rooms ready to house anyone avoiding deportation. They have not had to use their status yet, attributing this to the government’s increasingly hostile tactics which make moving through legal channels riskier. First Church and the community do what they can to help—after the Corso raids in Sandusky on June 5, 2018, many members of the Oberlin community work with the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) Ohio to provide rides for immigrants who need to get to their court hearings. Through their current efforts, First Church continues its legacy to provide aid to refugees and those in need. 

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