Long before Seattle was a sanctuary city, churches here sheltered immigrants from Central America.
Carlos Mejia and his wife Ercilia moved here in 1983 from El Salvador, which was in the throes of a civil war. Patricia was seven months pregnant at the time; she later gave birth on the third floor of University Baptist Church.
Just like Mary and Joseph, says Mejia.
Mejia had been a farmer and part-time tailor. He was active in his church, which drew negative attention from the government, especially the military.
Mejia feared for his life. “Many innocent people died,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. Those people were tortured and killed.
So Mejia fled El Salvador. He ended up in Los Angeles where he met the then-pastor of University Baptist Church. The pastor invited Mejia and his wife to stay on the third floor of his church in Seattle. The space was spare but cozy, with a kitchenette, table and chairs. Windows from the room look out onto the neighborhood.
On a recent visit, Mejia led us to the room where he and his wife lived.
“We didn’t have a place to go,” he said. “I had no work. I was afraid of immigration. But it was a wonderful opportunity because the sanctuary movement grew.”
Mejia and his wife were in hiding. But he also spoke at other churches about the political turmoil in his home country.
“I feel something in my heart to explain to the United States people, understand what happened in El Salvador,” he said.
Telling their story was risky — for the Mejias and the church that sponsored them.
“There was a sense you were being watched,” recalled Margie Paynton. Paynton was the church organist and active in the sanctuary movement.
“We never knew who was going to be in the audience. So we took every precaution to have people with them,” she said.
Paynton said they didn’t know if immigration would take them. Church members took turns to chaperone them. They took them to the store or to appointments. They provided food and moral support.
Not everyone agreed with the church’s political stance. “Our government, the U.S. government, felt that what we were doing was illegal,” Paynton said. “Because they were fleeing for economic reasons as opposed to political reasons.”
Some didn’t like what the church was doing. The church was vandalized more than once.
“Barbells were thrown through the stain glass windows," Paynton said. "We took those barbells and put them on the church altar as a symbol of our stand.”
She said it was an exhausting time — but also an energizing one. “For me and for many people, we were living the Gospel.”
The church took its action to Seattle City Hall. It petitioned the council to pass a resolution in support of Central American refugees. In 1986 council members adopted the motion and declared Seattle a city of refuge. That would set the stage for future forms of immigrant protections.
Carlos Mejia and his family stayed at University Baptist Church for about seven months. He had hoped to return to El Salvador once the political situation changed. But the family set down roots in Seattle. Mejia worked as a custodian at the University of Washington. Today he is retired but keeps busy with his gardening business. He and his wife have three children.
“Fortunately the three of them are married,” he said. “And so we’re waiting for our grandchildren.”
In 1992, Mejia became a naturalized citizen. Looking back to his early years in Seattle, he recalls his time at University Baptist Church as "a beautiful history." It was an opportunity to tell the American people their story.
“The other thing was the feeling of happiness and the warm welcome that we received from such very kind people,” he said.
From the moment they arrived in Seattle, he said, they felt free.
Mejia said people who leave their countries hope to achieve a better life. You don’t know where you’ll land, or how you'll be received, he said. You don’t know if you’ll survive. And you don’t know if you’ll return.