Driving in a car for two hours with people that you do not know can be a stressful experience. But being in that circumstance, I didn’t feel anything but welcomed when I volunteered with the Tucson Samaritans, a volunteer group run through the South Side Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona.
The Tucson Samaritans is a “diverse group of volunteers that are united in (their) desire to relieve suffering among our brothers and sisters and to honor human dignity.” They go into the desert on a daily basis to carry water, food, emergency medical supplies, communication equipment, maps and individual traveler packs containing items necessary to survive in the desert. They are “Responding directly, practically and passionately to the crisis at the U.S./Mexico border.” They are currently working alongside the efforts of No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths) and other non-profits in the Tucson area to provide necessary supplies to migrants.
I went on two trips with the Tucson Samaritans. One was a trip into the desert to place wooden crosses, crafted by the artist Alvaro Enciso. We planted four crosses into the desert landscape where bodily remains had been found belonging to migrants trying to cross the border. Alvaro makes every single cross out of found materials and donated materials, and every single cross is different. Each carries its own story, like the people that died trying to cross the border. Every person had life stories, and those stories all died in the desert. Alvaro believes that we need to do this work because “There is a secret here: The administration is using this area to kill people.” In his opinion, “It’s not about leaving the crosses, it’s about coming here and being here.” Enciso and the Tucson Samaritans see this as a way to honor the dead.
The second outing I had with the Tucson Samaritans was a trip to a soup kitchen for migrants called El Commodore in Nogales. We arrived at the soup kitchen and I do not speak Spanish, so I wasn’t much help. Still, I could tell that the people I was with had interpersonal relationships with the volunteers there because of frequent visits. This soup kitchen provides great resources for migrants, like food, a phone to call a loved one and a lawyer or public defender to work for you or to tell you your rights. It is run by an Abbey located down the street, and the sisters are truly angels on Earth. Being there, I could tell how much everyone who used this soup kitchen appreciated those services.
The Southside Presbyterian Church is a part of the Sanctuary Movement, an ancient tradition in faith communities but also a way for churches to use their privilege with the government to house “illegal aliens” without retribution. In the United States, The Underground Railroad was the first practical provision of anything like a sanctuary. This was created to help slaves flee the South. A more recent iteration of a sanctuary was in the early 1970s when faith communities opened their doors to conscientious objectors who had been drafted into the Vietnam War. The Sanctuary Movement really took hold in the 1980s, when the United States didn’t recognize refugees in Central American countries as political refugees seeking asylum. Most were deported back to the countries that they had come from, potentially with death squads awaiting them. From this injustice, the Sanctuary Movement was born, creating safe houses and safe congregations for people to move through and into Canada. The Sanctuary Movement sought to remind the United States government of their core values and to uphold the truth: the United States was directly supporting the arms, money and training of dictatorships in Central America.
As of 2014, and the increasing rates of deportations under the Obama administration, the Sanctuary Movement has been reborn by the housing of multiple refugees in the Southside Presbyterian Church. There are approximately 400 congregations engaged in the work of sanctuary across the nation. There are even sanctuary churches in Pennsylvania where you can get involved. For example, the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary is located in Newfoundland, PA.
The work that the Tucson Samaritans is doing in Arizona is really great because it creates awareness and takes action. But, the volunteers I had talked to seemed to have known that they were receiving just as much as they were providing.
Emily Rodden is a second-year student majoring in anthropology. ✉ ER861398@wcupa.edu.