Religion in quarantine: COVID-19, sanctuary, and the future of American religion
An edited excerpt from an essay by Department of History's Felipe Hinojosa, which will appear in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled "Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World."
The eBook is available for FREE download at: https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/188004
COVID-19, Sanctuary, and the Future of American Religion
by Felipe Hinojosa
I grew up in Brownsville, Texas. It is a town perfectly placed on the southernmost tip of Texas in a region known as the Rio Grande Valley. Most of the families have left the neighborhood where I grew up and Lincoln Park — the park I used to cross every day on my way to J. T. Canales Elementary — is gone, flattened by Interstate 69. But perhaps one of the biggest and most visible changes is the oddly placed border fence built in the early 2000s as part of the Bush administration’s move to secure the border.
The border fence is much more than an eyesore in my hometown. It is a failure to see the beauty — and the contradictions — of border life. And while the fence in my hometown and the president’s chatter about building a “border wall” along the U.S./Mexico border have made things more difficult, they have not stopped people from finding a way to connect with and support one another. People like Mike Benavides, a school administrator, founded the group Team Brownsville, whose members come together to help those seeking asylum in the U.S. In the summer of 2018, Team Brownsville started taking things like food and other necessary items to the hundreds of asylum seekers from as far away as India, Cuba, Colombia, Bangladesh, El Salvador, and Honduras, all waiting in the Mexican border town of Matamoros to present their case to U.S. authorities.
In 2019 a group of drag queens organized a protest along the US/Mexico border in Brownsville to voice their opposition to the border wall and to raise money for LGBTQ asylum seekers. The leader of the group, Beatrix Lestrange, a.k.a. “Joe Colon-Uvalles,” commented that the goal “is to use the beauty of drag art and performance against the hateful, racist and xenophobic rhetoric that is being projected unto our communities.” Drag queens from throughout the Rio Grande Valley have since gathered in public parks to proclaim, “We are here to bring joy, positivity, beauty, drag, culture to whatever this is,” pointing to the border fence (Leaños, 2019). These heroic acts of resistance are part of a long tradition of resistance along the borderlands. And it is this radical tradition — and the love that emanates from it — that will carry us forward in a COVID-19 America. Let me explain.
In the 1980s, a powerful movement of religious leaders, community organizers, and activists opened the doors of their churches to provide sanctuary to refugees fleeing war and violence in Central America. In the years between 1980 and 1983, an estimated 1.5 million people left their homes in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala to come to the United States. The Sanctuary movement emerged as a way to offer people a place to stay and many came with hopes of gaining asylum in the United States. However, gaining asylum status proved difficult. The U.S. government categorized immigration from Central America as motivated by economic interests rather than a genuine need to escape war and violence. For U.S. officials, granting asylum to Central American refugees also meant an admission of guilt and responsibility for the very violence that U.S. foreign policy helped create and continued to fund (Smith, 1996, p. 162). As a result, a majority of refugees were denied asylum. This reality lit the fire of Sanctuary movement organizers who believed they had a moral obligation to open the doors of their churches and synagogues to give sanctuary.
My church in Brownsville, Texas, participated in this movement. Iglesia Menonita del Cordero, a Mexican American working-class congregation, opened its doors to refugees from Central America and for a few years housed several hundred people at a time. Of course, I had no clue about what they were experiencing at the time. I had no sense of their struggle, their worries, and certainly no idea of what they had left behind in their home countries. But one thing that has stuck with me, that I have never forgotten, are the faces of the people I met. Under unimaginable stress and trauma, they seemed hopeful to me. I clearly remember the leadership of church members who worked around the clock to make sure people were cared for, that they had what they needed, and that they made contact with their relatives. This scene — of churches stepping up and opening their doors to offer critical services for refugees and undocumented immigrants — was repeated across the country. However, for their courage, religious leaders were surveilled, imprisoned, and their places of worship deemed criminal.
These risks that were taken must serve as a model for how religious groups should respond in the midst of this current pandemic. In this COVID-19 world in which we all now live, it will be more important than ever for churches to enact politics of love prepared to serve refugees, immigrants, small business owners, single parents, families with sick relatives, and people who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. While the social distancing and shelter-in-place orders will ease, the economic disaster will remain with us for the foreseeable future. It is in the midst of this, that history, and the Sanctuary movement in particular, can remind us of the moments when the saints carried us.
Felipe Hinojosa is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University. His teaching and research interests include Latina/o and Mexican American Studies, American Religion, Social Movements, Gender, and Comparative Race and Ethnicity.
Leaños Jr., R. (2019, February 26). Texas ‘dragtavist’ drag queens stage border wall protest. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/02/26/697958528/texas-dragtavist-drag-queens-st….
Smith, C. (1996) Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America peace movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Originally posted on the Digital Religion website