The Sin of the Sanctuary Movement


All of this talk swirling. All of this talk swirling about sanctuary. Cities supposedly taking stands against the coming storm. Governing bodies and schools. Faith-based communities and non-profits. Certain circles pulling off dusty covers and revving engines back to life.

Let me just cut to the chase, because the clock is ticking down to January 20th, 2017:

Are you a white person of a certain age who participated in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980’s?

Then take a seat. Preferably in the back of the room. Better yet – how about you just place a cash donation in the basket and go home?

Because within all of the prayer vigils, press releases and political statements, there’s a dirty little secret that blooms in the center of all of this:

The majority of white people who supported the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980’s never identified or accepted their position as white people with multiple levels of privilege and access within this movement. 

Have you ever spoken with a white person who was active at that time? The first signs of trouble are the mist that takes over their eyes. They’ll tell you right off the bat that they carried a rifle in the mountains of Central America. Or they’ll chuckle and share their nickname with you from that time period. Usually, they can’t pronounce it correctly in Spanish, because they never bothered to work on their accent. You see, they were too busy saving lives. Standing for a cause.

They were…wait for it…giving voice to the voiceless.

They speak nostalgically about the backs of pickup trucks they traveled in, the English classes they taught, the kids they cured with rudimentary first aid skills and the power of prayer. They speak with amazement about the fiestas and the food and the dancing and the weather in the downtime between the battles.

It’s come to the point that I won’t tell a white liberal person of a certain age that I lived in Mexico from 2001 to 2011. Especially not these days. Why? Because Mexico is the same as El Salvador, right? At least in these white people’s minds it is.

Saying that you’re ethnically connected to any country in Latin America is their cue to start up their tired and righteous monologue, where they romantically reminisce about the last time in their lives that they believed they were doing work that mattered. And they want you to agree. Because they’ve nominated you as their present-day token Latin American representative. But don’t share any of your present-day immigration story and how it connects to their moment of Work That Mattered. Nooooo. These white people aren’t here for that. Usually, they won’t even ask you a single question. You exist at that moment simply to be silent and still, nodding your head as they move through the years. 1981. 1982. 1983…

Sometimes, after a few drinks, they may confess through lowered voices and gripped glasses that the sex was hotter because it was wartime.

Often, the religious ones talk about how they never felt closer to God.

And then they returned to the United States. Or Europe. Some never even went to Central America, but will lecture you on the little that they know about that part of the world, through an 80’s perspective. Because, you know, the coalition work that they did in Berkeley, California makes them practically Central American. They arrive to evening events in their leather sandals and colorful woven bags, their traditional shirts, blouses and dresses made by indigenous women from all across Latin America.

Oh yeah – they’re down with the brown.

They sing De Colores with a tear in their eye. Have no idea who Ana Tijoux is. And they’re powerfully clueless to their white savior complex. 

January 20th, 2017 will be here after a few more bottles of wine. That’s the reality.

Here’s another – some of you white people who participated in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980’s are secretly excited about what looms ahead. It gives you a chance to press your hands against your face and breathe in a wisp of the scent from that time of your life. Where you loved your nickname, even if you couldn’t pronounce it correctly. Where brown people stood silently next to you in church presentations. On the stairs of federal buildings. At candlelight vigils in parks. Brown people, silent and still. Human bookends to all of the space that you were taking up. Space that you continue to fill today with a profound lack of reflection.

So a recommendation from a present-day token Latin American representative: The communities who are most directly affected must take the lead in this next chapter of the Sanctuary Movement. This new phase of work must be more intersectional, comprehensive, holistic and intentional. It must acknowledge everyone in the room whose lives are one way or another at risk in the coming years.

But you know what this movement doesn’t need to do for the white liberal people of a certain age? This new chapter of the Sanctuary Movement doesn’t need to acknowledge you on a daily basis. If you demand it – if you insist to be acknowledged, then you’re just adding to the sin in the center of all of this.

And sin has a funny way of finding you out.