Below is the transcript of the presentation given by our Program Manager, Anna Carro Abernathy, at our Annual Meeting on August 19.

“When I hear the word sanctuary, I often tense up. I hear the voices of our elected officials ringing in our ears, threatening to cut funding to our cities and towns. I think of my fellow citizens, congregants, colleagues, or peers who disapprove, who fear, who hesitate at the idea. I imagine churches locking up, keeping the good in and the bad out. I want to jump in and help, but hesitate at the thought.

In January, I took a trip to visit the borderlands spanning between Tucson and Nogales, in and around the Sonoran Desert, which instilled in me a new, working definition of the concept of sanctuary.

Our group visited the founding church of the sanctuary movement, and the first to declare sanctuary in the 80s – Southside Presbyterian of Tucson. Although church leadership has changed and the congregation has grown, the church remembers. The action they took is stitched into the fabric of their identity. The current, young pastor speaks of the movement like she was there.

On our trip we met John, one of the leaders of the Tucson activist community when the movement caught on. He and his colleagues provided free legal counseling and resources to refugees from the Central American Civil Wars. When he spoke to our group, he said something that struck me: “There is no middle ground between collaboration and resistance.”

But is that true? When John was working to establish sanctuary in Tucson in the 1980s, there was no middle ground. Today, even, a middle ground seems to be difficult to find – do we collaborate with the government at the immigrant community’s expense? Or do we run the risk of resistance?

The current pastor of Southside Presbyterian church sees sanctuary as a way of filling in the gaps between the government and our communities. In other words, sanctuary is exactly the middle ground between collaboration and resistance. It is positive resistance through communal collaboration.

In our current climate it seems, sanctuary is something to be declared, just like Southside did. They went public, opened their doors to those in need, and united to protect a migrant family. They gathered their resources to make sanctuary work.

But what if “sanctuary” didn’t have to be “good vs bad” or “us vs them”? What if it didn’t only have to involve shelter, or locking doors? What if it represented a communal collaboration spanning multiple congregations, organizations, and individual volunteers?

The most impactful part of our trip was hiking the Sonoran Desert. We were hiking to learn firsthand what so many migrants pass through in search of a better life. Approximately 3000 people are apprehended each day in the desert by border patrol and ICE. The desert is dry and brutal, getting up to 120 degrees each day. From January to June this year, 81 bodies or skeletal remains were found. 2017 is set to surpass last year’s total number of 154 bodies.

If apprehended, migrants are rarely granted asylum. They are placed in detention centers, and sent through an inhumane court process. This court process, called Operation Streamline, was designed to literally streamline immigrants through the court process, convince them to plead “guilty,” and deport them within 7 days. Our group sat in the back to witness this experience, and it was horrific. The immigrants that had been apprehended were literally shackled. 60 migrants testified in 1 hour. Some requested that they receive a hearing because of their families, or for their asylum cases to be heard out, but most were convinced by the state attorneys to plead guilty and “avoid any trouble.”

Operation Streamline is not only bad governing. It is entirely void of any compassion or respect for human dignity. I am afraid that this could be where we are headed. We need to be prepared for hateful and unjust policies in the near future, and we need to be prepared to fill the gaps where our government falls short.

In response to the staggering statistic of deaths in the desert, a community of activists in Tucson hike through the desert once a week to drop water and food along the border. These people are working to make their experience a little easier, a little softer, and a little bit more welcoming. This kind of hospitality – the going-out-of-your-way, hiking through the desert, and crossing into semi-illegal territory kind – inspires me to demonstrate that kind of hospitality in my own community. These hikers and water-droppers are creating sanctuary in the most desolate and uncertain of places – the barbed wire that divides “us” from “them.”

Even though we are far from the border, this is where BIIN comes in. We have the amazing ability to work in the gaps of our community, the places overlooked by the local government. We have the capability to provide the support that congregations, nonprofits, and individuals cannot fully take on by themselves.

Let us not lose hope in one another or our elected officials. Let us continue to pray, continue to hope for the best of humanity, and continue to witness it in our lives and in the actions that BIIN and other nonprofits are currently taking. Despite what goes on in DC or in our local governments, let’s continue our work of creating sanctuary for our immigrants every single day.”

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