“Do you not see how necessary,” John Keats once wrote, “a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” These words have been ringing in my ears lately, reminding me that education happens in a variety of ways, that it exceeds what can be discovered in the pages of a book or within the walls of a classroom or laboratory.
I’m a professor of religious studies, so it should come as no surprise that books have meant a lot to me. They have opened doors to new regions of mind and spirit. I have looked to books for guidance and revelation, and for the exhilarating delight—the aha! moment— that accompanies all discoveries. But books have their limits: they can’t, by themselves, provide a “place where the heart must feel and suffer,” which is why Casa Alitas, a shelter for migrants and refugees in Tucson, has become a place where I receive an alternative education.
The work of Casa Alitas, providing hospitality and humanitarian aid to migrant families and individuals fleeing violence and poverty, builds on an old legacy in Tucson, going all the way back to the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. That movement arose to meet the needs of Central American refugees fleeing the repression and violence of their homelands. In the wake of the 1980 Refugee Act, churches and synagogues in Tucson banded together to protect the rights of any refugee who could demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution,” shepherding them, via an underground railroad of sorts, to religious communities around the country. Though the Sanctuary Movement would decline in the 1990s, the example of its founding figures—the Rev. John Fife, John Corbett, Sr. Darlene Nicgorski, Fr. Ramón Dagoberto Quiñones, and many others—would become the seed of many new organizations in Southern Arizona: the Kino Border Institute, No More Deaths, the Samaritans, Borderlinks, Humane Borders, Derechos Humanos, the Florence Project, and Casa Alitas, among others.
Most of these groups have their origins—if not a current affiliation—with religious communities. They all draw from the deep well of the Bible, which is clearly marked by the experience of migration, diaspora, and exile. The command to protect the stranger is a fundamental biblical theme. “The stranger who sojourns with you,” decrees Leviticus 19:34, “shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all refugees themselves, uprooted because of famine; and Joseph and Mary, with the infant Jesus, were no different—forced to steal away to Egypt like their displaced ancestors. Wherever one turns in the Bible, the realities of exodus and diaspora loom as large as a dust storm in the desert, threatening the stability of temple and town, unnerving every conscience. The biblical prophets made it their mission to rebuke the Israelites whenever they became callous toward the victims of war and poverty. Their furious words would shift tone and tempo on a dime, sometimes sounding like the peal of a trumpet or shofar, blaring their demand for repentance, sometimes muted to comfort and soothe. Our sacred duties to the hungry, the homeless, and the stranger in our midst were, through it all, a constant refrain.
Casa Alitas, an offshoot of Catholic Community Services, stands in this ancient tradition. It exists to welcome and assist the wandering Arameans of today, to give “wings”—as the word alitas suggests—to those who come to us from distant lands. Practically speaking, we provide temporary shelter, food services, Covid testing, and travel arrangements to our guests. Every day, between two hundred and seven hundred people are brought to our doorstep by Border Patrol and ICE. They come from all over the world. Before the pandemic, we received a significant number of Central Americans. But with the Remain in Mexico and Title 42 programs enacted during the Trump administration, Central Americans have been largely prohibited from crossing the border to apply for asylum, and the population we serve has shifted to a preponderance of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Columbians, Peruvians, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Haitians, Brazilians, Mexicans, Georgians, Russians, and Indians. Tucson has become a major hub for asylum-seekers. In most cases, they stay with us for a matter of days, just long enough for their sponsors to pay for their plane or bus tickets. They come and go quickly, passing through our doors into a brave new world.