At Home in Makeshift Times

by Susan Grelock-Yusem, Director of Narrative Development, Commonweal

“The one who could offer hospitality, but does not, symbolically loses the heart of his or her own home.” Edward Casey & Mary Watkins, Up Against the Wall: Re-imagining the U.S.-Mexican Border

A Sanctuary for Refugees at the United States-Mexican Border

On a late winter day this year, I found myself with Angela Oh, co-director of Commonweal’s Gift of Compassion program, as she drove a rented SUV down a dry (enough) riverbed on the outskirts of Tijuana, Mexico. Without warning, she made a turnoff of the road that had taken us out of Tijuana and we were bouncing across deep ruts and jutting rocks.

Angela, along with other volunteers in a second car,  was taking donated supplies to the Migration Support Network Sanctuary, an emergent community built by Pastor Gustavo Banda to provide safe shelter for people migrating across Latin America (and, sometimes, beyond) in hopes of getting into the United States. Banda started the sanctuary in response to a vision, a vision which was perfectly in sync with the reality of human migration in these times.

The PEW Research Center reports that in 2020 the world reached a new high in displaced people, with 89.4 million humans forced from their homes due to violence, conflict, or disaster. The makeshift community Banda started in the valley where he grew up, called Cañon de Alacrán, now houses up to 2,000 people a day and hundreds of children among them.  He envisions he will someday host up to 5,000.  While he prepares operationally for the number of people who will likely arrive, there seems to be deeper work happening – the work to create a homeplace. How does the place house not only people, but the feeling of being loved, seen, and cared for in a life journey that is arduous, at the very least? That is palpable at the shelter.

Angela’s intentions were straightforward and modest: get donated supplies to a community that, because of the constant flux, can always use just about anything. Food and money are most precious, but clothing, kitchen supplies, toys, and household supplies find ready purpose among a community of people who mostly arrive on foot, some having traveled hundreds of miles.

My intentions were less clear. I am especially interested in how people are navigating the uncertainty and unease of life in the global polycrisis. The surging, unpredictable forces that are becoming commonplace on Earth today have created, among many other things, surges of human migration. As someone trained in depth psychology from a community and liberation perspective, I am concerned about how humans will psychologically navigate these times, individually and collectively,  and I want to know where to act.

After almost a mile of bouncing and tenacious navigation, the river-road abruptly ended at a newly built church in front of us, with buildings in various states of repair and construction all around. A small group of people, mostly young men, moved towards us to help unload the cars. One man took the lead in directing where supplies should go. Everything seemed to be flowing inside the church, where, I was later told, supplies are carefully shared, based on need and priority. Another young man, who spoke English, conversed with Angela. Meanwhile, curious children also began to come and greet us. Gustavo soon arrived and enthusiastically embraced Angela, like an old friend from far away.

Banda offered to give us a tour; he wanted to show Angela how much had changed since her last visit. We climbed up a dusty hill, passing piles of old tires and bags of trash awaiting removal. Suddenly Angela cried out in awe— in the few months since her last visit a new building had been half-erected, a gorgeous open-air kitchen. It had a poured concrete floor, block walls, and a large tiled island that looked like it would be a cafeteria-style serving area. Although construction was stalled due to funding needs, it was beautifully constructed and had a cool, modern design that belied its intention and vision.

In stark contrast, alongside the building, two women worked in a small outdoor kitchen thoughtfully assembled under three white pop-up tents. They worked on folding tables with a few large propane burners. Beans and rice simmered in 5-gallon tin pots. I asked Angela how everyone got food, since these women could clearly only feed a fraction of the residents. She paused and said it was ad hoc but that everyone received food in some way.

We walked further up the hill and saw another new addition— a large soccer court where more than a dozen young boys were engrossed in play. Banda pointed across the riverbed to another stalled building project, a sophisticated multi-level building started by a university. It was envisioned as a model community development facility, including space for education, housing, and work. But, lack of funding had paused it for the unforeseeable future. Its arrested development loomed uncomfortably and uselessly over the buzzing church and kitchen areas.

I asked Angela where people actually sleep. She said the church is lined with beds and mats are stored in the eaves; at night the open building is packed with rows of sleeping bodies. By day,  I later learned, it is also the place where there is a check-in process, by which the inhabitants can be tracked daily. As well, people with significant need (like a sick child or a woman about to give birth) can be accounted for and given special care, to the best of the day’s ability. There is little to no crime or disruption, as the inhabitants of this place keep a watchful eye on the children and almost daily new arrivals.  Virtually everyone finds a useful task as they wait to hear how asylum might be granted.

In Up Against the Wall: Re-imagining the U.S.-Mexican Border, philosopher Edward Casey and psychologist Mary Watkins underline that “the development and sustaining of ethnic, racial, cultural, and linguistic pride in the face of discrimination and ethnoracism is key to psychological and community health.”  They remind us of the work to develop public homeplaces as articulated by Mary Belenky and bell hooks and brought to life by people like Pastor Gustavo. Homeplaces provide food and shelter but also dignity, faith, and recognition of soul.

I looked out on the land and had a challenging time finding the boundaries of the Sanctuary. I felt ashamed to notice that my Western mind wanted to see borders and containment. Something tidy: A facility, a center, a campus? But, no. Everything seemed in flux. Even as I stood there the walls seemed to be moving and changing. There was a palpable porosity. Yet,  even in its flux, it felt decidedly contained. Even as a passing visitor I felt held by the place.

Angela uses the word “Sanctuary” to describe the place itself, as well as the actual church building. And, I realized, the sanctuary is the heart of the entire place. Gustavo seems to understand that his work is soul work. Even as he speaks of bricks, tires, and building permits, his work quietly emanates from this place.

Angela reflected to me that Gift of Compassion—a Commonweal program that offers experiences to calm the spirit and inspire generosity using art as a portal—was started with a foundation in meditation. Besides being an attorney and nationally recognized voice on race relations and conflict resolution, Angela  is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. But, she said, she responded to what presented itself. And it was not a world seeking meditation training but a world seeking perhaps a more practical touch. Gift of Compassion practices what she calls “creative hospitality.”

As we were driving away, incredulously, a trash truck was arriving. We had to wait until it passed, so we could get through. Angela was almost overwhelmed with joy.  Getting trash removed is critical in such a tenuous living situation and, of course, it had seemed impossible. Even seeing it with my own eyes, it seemed unbelievable that the truck had made the trip through the river bed.

Driving back, we talked for a few hours as we, along with hundreds of other cars, inched through the border control line to come into the United States. It was late and dark and, after our early morning start, the searing lights at the checkpoint were disorienting. “What do we say if we get stopped—what is our line?” I asked. We agreed on the best description and called the volunteers in the other car to get in alignment. Even as well-papered American citizens, we felt nervous and tense until we had made it through the checkpoint.

I reflected on one of the images from the day that was lingering with me. On one edge of the Sanctuary there is a micro-village of people from Haiti. A Haitian man came over to speak with us. He was well dressed and had a calm, bright face. His three-year-old daughter sat on his forearm, her small arm around his neck and her face smiling into his. He chatted in Spanish and Banda translated. He said he had finally gotten into the United States and moved to Los Angeles. But, it was not the welcoming place he had imagined, and he soon returned to the Sanctuary, which he now considers a permanent home. For his daughter, who was born there, it certainly is home. I was floored. He is staying here, in this makeshift space? Why would someone, who has suffered unimaginable hardship and finally succeeded in making it through one of the harshest borders in the world, leave and return to a makeshift village?

There is a renewed understanding in psychology that we must tend to the soul of the world, and our communities (local, national, global) are where this collective soul takes shape. But, we also must not abandon the individual; this is not an either-or proposition. Psychoanalyst Aniela Jaffe noted that “The conscious personality, obeying its individual destiny, is the only bulwark against the mass movements of modern society.” We must honor the dignity of the individual and the soul calling of each of us. This is where there is promise of a mooring. Here is where we can find home, even as who-knows-what awaits.

Angela asked, “Where do people have a place to rest their spirit in times of great distress and anxiety?” The man from Haiti who returned to the canyon sanctuary offered me one answer: to be rooted in our true selves. And to reside in homeplaces that allow us to be moored and moorings for each other. Rather than embrace what Western culture seems to be offering—rigid borders around souls in need–what if we flipped the notion and considered tending souls with dignity and keeping our borders porous?

Bayo Akomolafe talks about how the promise of these times lies not in repairing the broken worlds we have been inhabiting, but in finding new lifeways in the cracks. He invites us to take up residence in the cracks. The dry river beds. The makeshift.

“Do not pray exclusively to the ancestors of the land; make room also for the spirits of the fault line, the new gods that scream through cracks with the first musical notes of worlds to come,” Akomalafe wrote.

My own answer to this question came in the comfort and ease I found in the Sanctuary. How can one be at home in a makeshift space? What if we actually choose to be at home in the makeshift?


Find out more about Gift of Compassion and the Migration Support Network on their website.