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Sanctuary on the street corner

Josefina Ahumada reflects on sanctuary and Advent in the context of serving migrant workers in Tuscon, Arizona.

About 17 years ago I unexpectedly found myself working on a project at Southside Presbyterian Church. Southside is a multi-cultural congregation founded in 1906 as a mission to serve the urban tribal members of the Tohono O’odham Nation living in the downtown Tucson area. In the 1960s, the church was active in the civil rights movement, and in the 1980s, the church provided sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing to the United States to escape torture and oppression.

The Southside Workers Center. Photo from https://www.southsidecentro.org/.

Then in the early 2000s, there was a change in our barrio. We began to be inundated with a large flow of migrant day laborers seeking work. There had been a change in the federal border policy that appeared to produce an unintended consequence of drawing more migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border and into southern Arizona.

Since the 1920s, the corner of 10th Avenue and 23rd Street where the church is located had been a site for day laborers seeking work. Growers from local farms and employers from the different building trade companies came to the corner to hire workers. Then overnight we seemed to be in the midst of an overwhelming situation. Conflict emerged between the workers and barrio residents. In response to residents’ complaints, police began to “crack down” on the day laborers, calling for backup from the U.S. Border Patrol. Tensions mounted to a boiling point.

The church called meetings bringing together church members, barrio residents, city officials, police and workers to seek solutions. They identified the need for a day labor center so workers could have a safe space to wait for work and to negotiate a fair wage with potential employers. What was needed was a sanctuary on the corner.

Sanctuary. We often think of a sanctuary as a holy or sacred place. Here we talked about a blacktop parking lot where employers in their rumbling trucks could drive in to meet workers to hire. We are now in our 16th year of operation; even COVID did not stop the worker center. Who knew a place of safety and peace could be found in a small piece of real estate? Every day, Monday through Saturday, workers gather on the corner. What began as a small gathering of church folk and day laborers under a mesquite tree in the church parking lot has evolved into the Southside Worker Center that is organized as a collective of workers, community volunteers and two part-time staff.

The center provides a job matching service where employers who are either local residents or companies come to connect with job seekers. The workers have a background in landscaping, the building trades and domestic house cleaning. In addition to the job matching service, the center runs a leadership academy, provides advocacy for fair wages and assists with processing wage theft complaints. The center has a working relationship with the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law Workers’ Rights Clinic which provides legal assistance to the workers. The center serves as an internship site for Arizona State University social work students who provide the workers with information/linkage to community services.

As you would expect, every day at the center is a busy day, but recently there was a very special morning when a woman named Maria came by to say “hi” and to offer words of gratitude. She said, “Don’t you remember me? I was here a few years ago. When I crossed the border, I found my way to Tucson. I used to sleep in that arroyo,” she said, pointing to the dry streambed down the street. “You all helped me out. Gave me food and helped with finding a job. I now have a steady job, an apartment and my papers.”

I don’t really remember Maria because there have been so many on our corner — so many who come to the corner to wait for a job. Always waiting to see what will come around the corner. For many, it has not only been a job they have come seeking, but like Mary in the Advent narrative, many have traveled with the hope and promise of a new beginning.

Individuals who have felt as if they were lost with no place to be, they have found community on the corner. During those long days of COVID, the workers formed a circle of mutual aid to help with the varied needs that emerged.

Those who rush by in their cars may not fully recognize God’s abundance of hope and grace of 10th and 23rd. But, like Maria, I am grateful to be on that corner serving and offering sanctuary in God’s name.

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