A volunteer at Casa Alitas talks to newly arrived asylum seekers, Tucson, Arizona, February 2020 (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills).

“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.

All Christians must sooner or later decide whether they have the heart, soul, and courage required to love their most vulnerable neighbors, whether they will make room in the inn for the fugitive Christ child.

If you add up these migrating populations, I suppose it’s true to say, as the xenophobes do, that there is a crisis at the border. Our shelter and satellite shelters are frequently at capacity, bustling with energy and motion. Instead of alarm and apprehension, however, most of us who work with these groups see optimism and possibility in their arrival, a reclamation of the promise of America. When Casa Alitas fills up this way, the entire shelter gives the impression of something fully alive, pulsing with vitality and hope. Besides, ask any volunteer or staff member and they will tell you that if there is a crisis, it’s of a moral and spiritual nature, a demand to prioritize the least of our brothers and sisters, to stand against the rising tides of nativism and bigotry in our day. We can draw a lesson, perhaps, from how the so-called “theologians of crisis” (Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, et al.) responded to an earlier wave of dislocation, when Jewish refugees fled the Germans; their work reminds us that all Christians must sooner or later decide whether they have the heart, soul, and courage required to love their most vulnerable neighbors, whether they will make room in the inn for the fugitive Christ child.


I work in the transportation branch of Casa Alitas, spending a lot of time at the Tucson airport—helping with travel arrangements, assisting with boarding passes, processing guests through TSA, and returning those who are unable to fly back to our hotels. Almost every volunteer, across a wide spectrum of ages and religious backgrounds, speaks of the profound impact that this work has on his or her life. In my experience, this sort of volunteer work offers the rarest gift, a joy that surpasses all understanding: the joy of service. I come away feeling a bond and kinship with these sojourners, their lives now intertwined with mine. Thomas Merton wrote about an epiphany he had one day while on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville—he described it as waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation. That is how I feel after I’ve been at Casa Alitas.

Though I’m from a working-class Mexican-American family in Tucson, and the first to graduate from college, I suddenly find myself in a privileged career and setting, a tenured college professor who has the rare opportunity to pursue knowledge for its own sake, debating ideas and beliefs with my students in the comfortable and rarified bubble of a campus. I am grateful for all of it, of course. And yet, coming face to face with thousands of migrants and refugees who own little but the clothes on their backs, I am suddenly jerked out of this charmed academic life and drawn into the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable and deprived people.

The effect has been revelatory. The stories of adversity that I hear at Casa Alitas—the desperate flights from famine and political repression, the slog through the jungles of the Darién Gap, the assaults by police and cartels—make me feel grateful for my life here in the United States, it’s true. But the greater lesson is that God really does appear to us in strange and unexpected guises, as an outsider or stranger. It’s all too easy to miss him.

In 2012, Tucson’s city council declared us an “Immigrant Welcoming City,” and the city has a record to back that designation up. Many people here have made it their calling, collectively or individually, to shelter today’s sojourners, wherever they come from. Such people have helped me realize that the study of religion should be about more than contemplating divine transcendence or the properties of the world to come. True soul-making happens when contemplation takes root in action, when we look up from our books and see the Word of God presented to us in the face of a stranger who needs our help.

Alejandro Nava is a professor of religious studies at the University of Arizona and the author of Street Scriptures: Between God and Hip-Hop (University of Chicago Press).

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Published in the April 2023 issue: View Contents
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