Visiting the Sanctuary at Cañón de Alacrán


July 7, 2022

Retreats and Hospitality

by Oren Slozberg, Executive Director, Commonweal

Following a Fall Gathering at Commonweal, our community formed a bond with a shelter operated by the Embajadores de Jesús church in Cañón de Alacrán (Scorpion Valley) outside of Tijuana. This shelter has become home to hundreds of people waiting while their asylum petitions are considered by the United States government. These families come from across the globe: El Salvador, Haiti, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Honduras, and—most recently—from Ukraine. This is a global community of people for whom home is no longer safe.

In this partnership, Commonweal’s Gift of Compassion, a program directed by our board member Angela Oh, serves as a channel to deliver funds, supplies, clothes, and volunteers to the shelter. Angela regularly travels from her home in Southern California to Tijuana. Last month, I joined her on her journey across the border.

To get to the sanctuary, you have to cross the border, and then take the road that runs along the wall between Mexico and California—an imposing metal structure that cuts through the landscape. You can see the beaches of San Diego between the towering metal posts. After a pink bridge that stretches over the highway, you turn left: the road climbs into a Tijuana neighborhood. The pavement ends at the beginning of a seasonal streambed, and from there a rough dirt road leads to the albergue—the community church that is now home to more than 1,300 people.

The pastor of this small community church is Gustavo Banda. With his congregation, he morphed the single-story structure into a refuge and home for countless families. Gustavo walked us through the main hall, the social hall, the childcare center, and the clinic. All these spaces are packed with rows of bunk beds. Each bunk bed, draped in a blanket, is home to a family. The shelter homes some 400 children.  

According to Angela Oh, Gustavo receives virtually anyone who is seeking sanctuary. “This is because he is fulfilling his life’s destiny,” she said. “He once rejected the idea of ‘God’; today, because of his own struggles and miracles, he follows the word that comes to him each year as to what needs to be done.” 

Most of the people keeping the sanctuary running are asylum-seekers themselves, part of this makeshift community. The people working in the kitchen, the construction workers building the new school, the teachers, and those doing laundry, are all people living there. Gustavo’s family and other members of the local community lend their labor and care as well. A volunteer attorney helps each family manage their asylum process. An organization in San Diego provides teachers and materials for the local school. It is truly a community effort.

The residents of the shelter are all on a journey. Many have traveled thousands of miles, and now wait for a chance at a new life. They tell stories of escape, of travel, of harsh conditions. And yet the place is not one of despair. There is a sense of community, of vibrant living, despite the intensity of the tight living conditions. A shared determination and a mutual respect pervade the air.

I was humbled seeing the work being done here, the care provided, and the many, many hands involved in making it so. I am grateful that we at Commonweal can play a small role in support of Gustavo and this remarkable community of people building a new future.

Watch a short video about the Migrant Support Program, and find out how to support it, on our website.

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