Rock! Paper! Scissors!
Tools for anarchist + Christian thought and action
Vol 2. No. 1
Art Against Empire
Art Against Empire
Guest editor: Ewuare X. Osayande
By: Stefan Warner
Seated at a wooden table in a child-sized chair too small to comfortably hold my adult body, I was surprised by the mix of excitement and nervousness I felt leading a group of children in a discussion on the book of Exodus. Just weeks before, mass protests across the country had erupted, demanding the Trump administration reunite children that had been separated from their families at the border. Our church, Southside Presbyterian in Tucson, Arizona is just 60 miles north of the border between the United States and Mexico. Migrant justice activism and organizing has long been interwoven through the life of the congregation. The relevancy of the Scripture we were studying to the immediate political context was overwhelming. I felt hesitant, wondering where our conversation about Exodus would go.
After sharing a brief snack of grapes, crackers, and apple juice, our Sunday school class began our lesson about the Israelites grumbling in the desert, yearning for a solid meal, even wishing to be back in bondage in Egypt. We learned about God’s response—providing quail, manna, and water. We then discussed God’s instructions to take as much as one needed for each day, but no more. I asked the students if they had any ideas about how God provides for people who are hungry and thirsty in the desert in present day. In unison, multiple students shouted out, “No More Deaths!” They were referring to the grassroots coalition No More Deaths that leaves water and food in the desert for migrants crossing the border.
Growing up in the congregation that is known as “the Birthplace of the Sanctuary Movement,” these students have worshipped with families living on the church grounds seeking refuge from deportation. They are already intimately aware of the politics of the border and its ill-effects. The students regularly see church leaders collecting signatures in support of migrant-justice initiatives, tabling for local humanitarian aid organizations, and accompanying migrants to asylum hearings. For many, the Sanctuary Movement brings to mind daring stories of government surveillance, felony trials, and the underground railroad. But over the past 30 years, the Sanctuary Movement has evolved with room for everyone to contribute, including children and youth. At the center of the Sanctuary Movement at Southside Presbyterian is a commitment to building the beloved community and keeping families together.
Southside Presbyterian Church made history 37 years ago by publicly declaring itself a sanctuary congregation and sparking a movement. Centuries of oppression, violence, poverty, and U.S.-backed dictatorships in South and Central America drove thousands of people north to seek asylum in the United States in the early 1980s. The United States government responded by denying asylum requests and deporting people to their home countries. In response, a network of people formed and began to house and transport people to safety in Canada where they could attain asylum status. The movement lost momentum in the early 90s but regained momentum in May 2014 when Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, a 36-year-old Mexican immigrant, husband, father, and resident of Tucson, Arizona received a letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ordering Daniel to appear for voluntary deportation. At the time of receiving the letter, Daniel had maintained employment in Tucson for over a decade. Deportation would have torn Daniel from his wife and son. Rather than appearing voluntarily for deportation, Daniel and his family entered Southside Presbyterian Church and declared their intention to stay until his order of deportation was given administrative closure. The strategy worked. Twenty-eight days later, Daniel was granted a stay of deportation, meaning ICE would not seek to deport Daniel.
Southside members are active not only in local efforts to provide emergency shelter and food for migrants, but also in organizing efforts to extend sanctuary beyond the church walls by working to end mass incarceration of migrants, collecting signatures in order to keep local law enforcement agents from cooperating with ICE, or leaving water and food in the desert for migrants.
The work of sanctuary is not just for adults. Young people from Southside volunteer at local shelters for migrants, canvas for migrant-justice organizations, and have learned to be flexible, accommodating, and respectful of families living in sanctuary at the church. One afternoon last summer during a junior high youth group, our group was joined by two visitors—4 and 6-year-old siblings who were living in sanctuary at the church at the time. That particular Sunday, the siblings wandered into the youth room to grab some toys and were delighted to see other youth present, albeit much older. They ran and jumped on the couches next to the older youth and insisted on staying. The students laughed and helped the two read and sing along to the words of the songs we sang. While it might not seem like much, the very act of making space to include others is at the heart of the Sanctuary Movement.
Social movements—including the Sanctuary Movement—are often defined by their charismatic leaders, the exciting events covered by the press, and the repression that usually ensues. Specifically, the work of the Sanctuary Movement has often been defined as the use of church buildings to keep law enforcement out and away from harassing families avoiding deportation. But what I’ve learned from my brief time at Southside is that the Sanctuary Movement is made up of the small acts of community that make room for others. When our nation’s immigration system is determined to keep people out, being in community with people deemed as “other” by the State is a radical act of resistance. Discussing Exodus and current events with the children of Southside intimidated me because I initially failed to see how they live, act, and embody the Sanctuary Movement. My time working with the children and youth of Southside has made me realize—they are the Sanctuary Movement.