Radical Refuge | Sojourners

Radical Refuge

The Sanctuaries collective creates a new kind of sacred space for art and justice.
Image via The Sanctuaries Facebook
Image via The Sanctuaries Facebook

My family was earthquaked
I changed the noun into a verb
because it’s almost like someone did this to me on purpose ...
—Sanctuaries artist Mazaré, “Where is God in the Natural Disaster?”

OUTSIDE, A MID-NOVEMBER storm of biblical proportions is raging, but the hushed crowd gathered in this church basement is in rapt attention to a woman giving testimony. In the parking lot, a hollowed-out school bus holds the detritus of a homeless life. A handmade “Wheel of Misfortune” dangles from one rain-splattered window, over empty bottles and voided bank notes.

Suddenly the crowd erupts in cheers, and the poet, grinning, cedes the floor to a pair of musicians. Today the church is playing host to a collaboration between Street Sense, a publication run by and for Washington, D.C.’s homeless community, and The Sanctuaries, a D.C.-based art, spirituality, and justice collective. The bus—filled with real experiences of D.C.’s homeless community, represented by Sanctuaries artists—will tour the city as a mobile story. It’s the culmination of months of work. To some, it’s an act of resistance. To others, it’s church.

For all the breathless predictions of what the day after Nov. 8 might bring, a reckoning with mortality was not one of them. Yet a marked grief snaked across some newsfeeds and private emails in the days that followed—a feeling that with the election, something precious about life as we knew it had died.

That morning, the founding organizer of The Sanctuaries, Erik Martinez Resly, sent a simple note to members: “I love you.” A few improvised hours later, a small group had huddled at a church on 16th Street in D.C. to share the real-time experience of the country’s historic change in direction. For The Sanctuaries, response looked like art and togetherness—two qualities that have guided the group from its beginning.

“This refrain, from a young black poet I’d heard six months ago, just kept repeating in my mind,” says Aaliah Elnasseh, a member of The Sanctuaries’ improv and photography teams. “‘I got a target on my body, some body, please protect me.’ I had no idea I’d carried those words with me. And they were there, to remind me exactly of how I feel.”

I got a target on my body, some body,
please protect me
—Mohammed Tall, “Do the Right Thing”

Resly wasn’t always planning to become a minister, or organize for justice, though he probably always would have been an artist. When he was a high school senior, the son of Jewish and Christian parents was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer. It was the first earthquake in his life, one he calls a “wake-up call.”

“That state of profound dependency, completely out of control, forced me to engage in the spiritual practice of surrender—to ungrip, open up your hands, connect with the hands of someone else, and invite the unexpected—the world, God—into what had been closed off.”

Resly’s experience with chronic illness has shaped his approach to building community ever since. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School and former chaplain for the National Institutes of Health, Resly has played in the deep end of existence for years. He’d long envisioned a group that would blend heart, soul, and action. But it was moving to D.C. that introduced the full possibility of what has grown into The Sanctuaries.

The Sanctuaries began in 2013 with 15 to 20 members, putting on spirituality-infused open-mic nights and justice-oriented discussion groups. Resly took care to let local residents and early team members shape the specifics, and by 2013, when Black Lives Matter had entered the lexicon and police shootings were a regular news feature, it was clear there was more that The Sanctuaries could do in D.C.

“We found we had to address the question of healing—in particular, people of color, who are going through a profound struggle,” Resly says. “We didn’t go into this thinking we were going to focus on the healing arts, but [current events] have opened up a new side.”

The group is a collection of artists, justice-minded activists, and spiritual seekers, but the impetus toward healing is a defining feature. The week after the Orlando shootings, The Sanctuaries had a pre-existing “soul slam” scheduled at a local theater.

“I was worried it would be business as usual, about our ‘collective hopefulness,’” says Ayari Marie Aguayo-Ceribo, part of The Sanctuaries’ core team and a longtime Unitarian Universalist.

“Instead, an ally spoke out in a poem about what it meant to be called into action—about what had happened to them. One of our interns, who identifies as black and queer, ran up to the stage and just starting bawling, and hugged them. That moment ... if you want to be an ally and don’t know how to do it, this is what it means.”

The healer met up with the reverend
and ever since then we been opening doors ...
—Osa Obaseki, “The Sanctuary”

At first pass, The Sanctuaries is innovative: a smart brand of spirituality and justice, at a time when young Americans are leaving religion in droves and cynicism in institutions is rising. But for the drop-in visitor, it’s fairly ordinary: Events are often held in drafty churches or classroom-style meeting rooms; the size of attendance at any of the offerings (soulful improv, monthly huddles, open mics) is hard to predict.

But The Sanctuaries’ unique organizational philosophy is perhaps especially ripe for this moment.

“Something Rev. Erik does differently is intentionally build leadership to be a diverse group of people,” Aguayo-Ceribo says. “And they lead by saying, ‘What do you need?’ That’s very different from going to a UU church and having someone whitesplain something to you. We need these spaces. There’s a call for it.”

With this intentionality, The Sanctuaries is putting forth a radical idea—that a committed network of diverse people in one city can create emotional refuge; that a gathering of bodies, not a joining of walls, makes a sanctuary; that we need each other’s wisdom and resources to survive.

And in a siloed city such as D.C., The Sanctuaries is proof positive of a countercultural heartbeat.

“When I first met Rev. Erik, he said, ‘I’d love to get coffee,’” recalls Erin Johnson, an early leader with The Sanctuaries who now lives in Michigan. “And I was like, okay—in D.C. people say that to you all the time and you sort of say, ‘Oh whatever.’ But he was serious! He kept asking me!”

For Johnson, who learned about The Sanctuaries from a flyer in a coffee shop in Virginia, encountering the group helped her connect vocation to profession for the first time. “I’m a lawyer. It’s hard to find ways to effectuate that in daily ways—justice was never connected to anything else for me,” Johnson says. “Here, I found a way.”

Johnson was also exploring her sexuality at the time, a challenge for a black bisexual woman in a city, and culture, that desperately wants people to fit in expected categories. “Being in a community like Sanctuaries has helped me be honest with myself about a lot of things,” Johnson says.

Elnasseh, who grew up Muslim, agrees. “Sometimes if you are a minority group, [people] want you to speak for your entire community, or highlight you as, ‘Look, we got this person!’ At The Sanctuaries, it’s normal to be yourself,” she says.

“Sanctuary” means “place of refuge,” and that has proven true for many of the individuals who have become part of the community. Johnson met her now-husband at The Sanctuaries. Aguayo-Ceribo found others with immigrant upbringings, for whom English is a second language. “But also, because we’re so diverse, we do face limits,” she says. “We will be bumping heads on how to approach our beliefs, sometimes shared, sometimes not.”

“I don’t know that you do human love efficiently,” Resly says. “And I don’t think you do dying efficiently. The most significant parts of human experience are those that often take time, that are marked with a great deal of unpredictability.”

It’s striking to encounter a group of millennials so energetically living at odds with the very culture developed for their generation. Those involved speak often of trust and the importance of deep commitment to one another—two societal glues that have witnessed rapid erosion in recent years.

“I’ve been surprised by how many folks are coming, saying, ‘I have nowhere else to go,’” Resly says. “What we do well is we are ultimately responsive—as responsive as possible. I’m not sure this is something that can be built with a blueprint.”

Walk with me in solidarity ...
What do you know? There is me
—Sanctuaries artists, “Love Reaches Out”

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Russian writer Masha Gessen laid out a blueprint for living under autocracy. Included was a warning: “Institutions will not save you.”

The Sanctuaries isn’t an institution, not yet, and its commitment to collaborative community may provide a model for organized resistance in the months and years to come. The day after the election, one leader, Osa Obaseki, sent Resly a text: “We’ve been preparing for this. What we’ve built is what’s needed.”

“You can’t create community, do it in a truly human way, unless you’ve living in its throes—in the chaos and fullness of human experience,” Resly says. He has been speaking to me, this whole time, from the lobby of a hospital, where he is awaiting a procedure—one more on his long journey through chronic illness, one more step to get back to how things were.

Today, The Sanctuaries lays out a spirit of ordinary ethics—a juicing down of our horizon-expanding experiences, traumatic and divine, into the service of daily connection. In that way, what The Sanctuaries is doing is religion—a visible manifestation of inefficient love at work in the world.

“Whether you use traditional or nontraditional language, both in art and activism you do not have the option to ignore the question of how you’re showing up,” Resly says. We end our call, and he resumes waiting, for the next change ahead.

This appears in the February 2017 issue of Sojourners
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