Wisdom from the Desert: Jim Corbett and the Principles of Civil Initiative (2005) - A Tribute - Rick Ufford-Chase
In the back of my bedroom closet there hangs an old jean jacket. It's frayed on all the edges, and many of the seams have ripped apart. The denim is faded and the corduroy collar is worn and beaten. It's meant for work on a ranch; the coarse wool lining is nothing fancy, but the jacket is lightweight and warm. The faded tag below the collar reads "Storm Rider."
The jacket belonged to a self-described Quaker rancher named Jim Corbett, a philosopher who lived in the Sonoran Desert. Jim died in the summer of 2002. In the 1980s, Jim's quiet way of life herding cattle in southern Arizona was interrupted by a ten-year effort to respond to the needs of the Central American refugees who were fleeing the violence of the death squads, militaries, and guerrilla movements of their countries. In many ways, he was the philosophical grandfather of the faith-based sanctuary movement that supported tens of thousands of refugees who crossed our border looking for asylum. As the movement died down, he returned to the desert and dedicated himself to the creation and practice of a covenant in which the land, the plants and animals it sustains, and the humans who inhabit it, would live in a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship.
As I write the story of our work with migrants in the borderlands over the past ten years, Jim's jacket is on the table beside me. His spirit inhabits our community, his thinking informs our attempt to protect the dignity and the rights of the people of the borderlands, and his voice grounds our strategy and our tactics. Though Jim was the most pragmatic philosopher I've ever encountered, my colleagues and I are still trying to understand the implications of his thinking on our work today. He was brilliant; the kind of brilliance that makes smart, dedicated people feel challenged, and maybe a little inadequate. He was also one of the most humble people I have ever known; he was most at home hiking in the desert, or tending cows, or milking his goats.
I think I amused Jim in my constant attempts to translate his ideas into concepts that could be easily embraced by a new generation of faith-based activists. I suppose it will always be the bane of philosophers that those of us of undisciplined minds will seek to simplify their ideas and make them our own. I trust that Jim approved of my own attempts, though I expect he would rue the loss of the opportunity to reform my thinking as we feel our way into yet another moment of the movement for human rights.
In my personal copy of Jim's book, Goatwalking, Jim inscribed, "For Rick - The Sanctuary section is incomplete, but you, Kitty [my wife of one month at the time], and others will have to write the next chapters."
It's been fourteen years since then. Here is the next chapter in our story.
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On January 1, 1994, the U.S. government began implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. The idea was to allow corporations to move goods for production and consumption across borders without the imposition of tariffs. It was billed as a win-win proposition: jobs and the promise of trickle down economic growth in Mexico, and the assurance of global economic competitiveness for the developed north.
Three months later, the U.S. Border Patrol began construction of a four-mile long, sixteen-foot-high barrier between the cities of Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona. The wall was built of rusty steel panels. It was part of a larger border enforcement strategy that became known by its California name — Operation Gatekeeper. It was implemented along the length of the border from the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas to the beaches of San Diego, California.
The plan was simple, elegant, and deadly. The Immigration and Naturalization Service would lock down the border in the urban areas where undocumented migrants have traditionally crossed. Then, the flow of migrants would inexorably shift toward the desolate deserts of southern Arizona or the rugged Tecate mountains east of San Diego. If the strategy was effective, the desert itself would act as a deterrent to the migrants. Put more succinctly, and perhaps more honestly, crossing the border here meant death. The prevailing wisdom among policy makers was that, confronted with this option, migrants would choose to stay home.
In 1995 we didn't have a single recorded death of an undocumented migrant crossing the border in Arizona. Since then, as new enforcement strategies have been put into practice, the death toll has risen steadily. The first year, there were more than twenty people who lost their lives crossing the border. In 2004, the Mexican Consul in Tucson reported that they knew of at least 231 people who had died in Arizona on their way to jobs in the U.S.
Every one of the men, women, and children who die in the desert has a story. Many are teenagers sent north with their parents' knowledge (and often their blessing) in order to find work and send money home to help their families survive. Most are men who must make the wrenching decision to leave their families. On a recent trip into northern Mexico, I met two young parents traveling with their toddler, preparing to hike for a week across the Sonoran desert. And others were sure to follow in their footsteps, pursuing the hope of some better life in the states.
Latin Americans truly face an impossible situation. Global trade policies encourage their governments to shift their subsidies from the agricultural to the industrial sector. As workers discover they can no longer live on the land, they are forced into urban areas where they take jobs in the factories of the global economy. Once there, they discover a hard reality. Though they might make as much as five dollars a day, they are now consumers in the global market place. Once they've moved to the city, they have to pay the same prices that you and I do for food and other basic consumer goods. When I lived in Guatemala City in 2003, my wife and I shopped alongside Mayan women wearing their traditional clothing in a huge, Wal-Mart-like store with fifty check-out stands and all the consumer goods we could find in Tucson, and these items were selling for the same prices.
Given these circumstances, workers head north to try to find jobs that pay enough to feed their families. They become migrants who run the gauntlet of death. The border is now designed to ensure that only the hardiest of undocumented folks will make it into the underground economy of migrant labor on which the U.S. depends. One Mexican man I met recently in northern Sonora had walked six days to get to a hotel just north of Tucson, where he was picked up by the Border Patrol and sent back. He was planning to cross again, because there was a family at home depending on his success.
By the summer of 2000, the question for the faith community of the borderlands had become obvious. "What must we do to respond faithfully and compassionately to the rising number of deaths in the desert?"
Jim Corbett's gift to us as we responded to that question was a guiding set of principles that he called "civil initiative." The idea seems at first to be counter-intuitive. When a government fails to respect and protect basic human rights — or, worse, is itself a violator — it is the responsibility of citizens to act in defense of those rights. Our task is not first one of protest or resistance, it is to take responsibility ourselves to protect the fundamental values of our community. In Jim's words,
Civil initiative maintains and extends the rule of law — unlike civil disobedience, which breaks it, and civil obedience, which lets the government break it. The heart of a societal order guided by the rule of law is the principle that the nonviolent protection of basic rights is never illegal. 1
To illustrate Jim's point, suppose you are walking down a country road and see a pond that is posted "no trespassing." If you hear someone yelling for help in the pond, you would be very likely to ignore the sign and jump into the pond to help the person who is drowning. In this case, you will have broken a statute put in place by the owner of the property, yet no one would make the case that you had broken the law. In fact, the community would quite reasonably expect you to honor the person's right to be saved. In that instance, you would have extended the community's fundamental values, even though you had to disregard the property owner's mandate to do so.
Using the principles of civil initiative to respond to the deaths of migrants in the desert, our first response was the creation of an organization called Humane Borders. The mission of Humane Borders took some time to emerge, but it was clear from the beginning that our response would be grounded in direct action. We were mindful of one of Jim's convictions that "in addition to its prophetic role as a voice for the oppressed and against injustice, the church shares with the community at large the primary power and responsibility to do justice whenever the state betrays its trust."2 Further, we were convinced that the Church's direct response to death in the desert would highlight the greater policy problems that were responsible for driving migrants into the desert in the first place.
Eventually, what emerged was a commitment to put water stations in the most dangerous places in the desert. Volunteers from Humane Borders put pins on a map to mark the location where bodies were found, and they began to see patterns emerge that showed the corridors of death. They then worked with private landowners and public land managers to arrange permission to put water stations in those locations. Church-based volunteers were trained to maintain the water stations, and by 2004 there were more than fifty stations that collectively distributed more than 25,000 gallons of water.
This project met all of Jim's criteria for civil initiative:
- It was nonviolent, and Jim often said that the nonviolent protection of human rights is never illegal.
- It was truthful. There was nothing hidden or discreet about this project. In fact, the Border Patrol was informed of the action and eventually became supportive.
- It was catholic, in the sense that it was designed to respond to the needs of anyone in the desert, whether or not they had documents to be in the United States, and regardless of where they came from.
- It was germane to the victim's need for protection. This was, first and foremost, an attempt to respond directly to the crisis in the desert. Any attention it brought to public policy was intended, but ancillary.
- It was dialogical. Humane Borders went out of its way to engage and develop a positive working relationship with the Border Patrol as an institution and with individual agents as persons. In many instances, the two organizations have worked together in an effort to save the lives of the migrants.
- It was and remains volunteer-based. The goal was not to create some large, institutional bureaucracy. This work will end when it is no longer necessary.
- Finally, it was community-centered. This is not about one person choosing to act as a lone ranger to put water in the desert. Rather, the ideas and practice of this work are tested in the crucible of our local faith community.3
Within a couple of summers, several things had become obvious. First, the right to give water to someone in need in the desert, regardless of that person's legal status in the United States, had clearly been re-established. Second, water stations were effective at saving lives, though it was impossible to document how many. Third, in spite of our best efforts, economic desperation was forcing more and more people to flee their communities of origin, and more and more people were dying each year in the desert. More had to be done.
In the early months of 2002, a small group gathered at Southside Presbyterian Church to brainstorm ways in which Jim's principles of civil initiative could help us to push further in our efforts to save lives in the desert. Once again, the group was made up of committed church folk, but this time we went out of our way to include several lawyers and a number of medical professionals: doctors, nurses, and EMTs. With their help, we created "The Samaritans."
Early that summer, the Samaritans trained more than 150 volunteers in basic desert safety, first aid, and emergency protocols, and began sending volunteer search and rescue patrols into the open country. The group established a guide for how they would respond to migrants in need, and shared it with the Border Patrol and with the local media. The protocol said that we would offer food, water, basic medical assistance, and calls to the authorities if it was a serious medical emergency, and if deemed necessary in the judgment of the accompanying medical professional. We would also offer a ride to a safe place for someone whose life was in danger.
Within eight days, we had our first interaction in the desert. On that morning, I was with a group of Samaritan volunteers that included an M.D. We started west into the desert before the sun came up. Just after dawn, we came across a young man waving an empty water jug beside the road. When we stopped to help him, we discovered he had been hiking for two days and two nights. He had made it about forty-five miles up the Altar Valley from the Mexican border, but he was hungry and thirsty and his feet were raw with blisters. He was weary and had gotten separated from his group, and he asked that we call the Border Patrol and turn him over to be sent back to his family, a request we have often received, and one we honor when folks would prefer to give up and head home. We drove the young man ten miles to the nearest town, and I called the Border Patrol and presented myself as a Samaritan volunteer. When I explained the situation, the dispatcher told me that there was no one available to retrieve the young man. "What do you want us to do with him?" I asked. "I don't know," she responded, "it's not our problem." This was not a situation we had anticipated.
In the end, we offered him sandwiches, we bandaged his feet, and we showed him a map with the most direct way out of the desert. Since that morning, Samaritans have had countless encounters like this one. Sometimes, they have simply offered an encouraging word and some basic care. Sometimes they have stopped to offer food and water to migrants detained by the Border Patrol, waiting for transport to the patrol station and back to Mexico. Every once in a while, they have come across folks who really are at risk of dying, and they've gotten them out of the desert to a place where they can recover. From there, they often ask for a ride to the Border Patrol Station because they are ready to give up. Other times, they simply move on again on their own.
The Samaritans have worked hard to re-establish the right of men and women in the borderlands to provide basic care for those in need, regardless of whether they have legal documents. If you test the effort against Jim's principles of civil initiative, you'll discover, once again, that we have adhered closely to those precepts.
It is increasingly clear that we are not alone in this work. There are community efforts similar to ours all along the U.S./Mexico border. Further, there are support systems in place for undocumented folks in the interior of the United States all over the country. The next step must be to link our efforts and make it clear that we will not allow the basic rights of any person to be violated simply because that person has made the difficult choice to cross a border in an effort to find work to ensure his or her family's survival. Further, we must use our direct experience with migrants and immigrants to inform the public policy debate about trade and immigration policies that have instigated this massive movement of people in the first place.
One of Jim's closest friends in his later years was a man named Daniel Baker, who moved to the desert to work with Jim and others on establishing an ethic for land redemption. As I corresponded with Daniel about Jim's legacy of civil initiative, he responded:
When I try to put my own words to civil initiative, I frame it first within the Biblical tradition of Jesus' teaching. . . .I take off on Jesus' admonition to "resist not evil" (Mt. 5:39), but rather to respond actively and creatively. Don't resist, don't fight, but create a positive alternative within the realities of the situation — offer the other cheek, your cloak, another mile — which characterizes Jesus' entire ministry.
Resistance is too enervating, and there are just too many injustices out there to fight. The energizing thing about civil initiative is that the idea is to be creating something good, rather than giving all of our energy to fighting/resisting evil (which gives the evil energy). I think that's why Jim didn't get burned out like so many activists — he was creating and enjoying the fruits of the spirit. 4
I used to talk with Jim about what it takes to build a movement, though I don't think I ever heard him articulate such grandiose goals overtly. It's not that he didn't think big. Rather, he believed that movement is what happens naturally when people act as "church." What we are called to be is a community of faith that seeks always to do torah. He described it this way:
For the prophetic faith, revelation unfolds in history, guided by the question, "How are we to fulfill our covenant, to be a holy people?" And, down through the generations the biblical voice urges, "In community, seek, do, and study torah." ? Torah can be characterized as law, guidance, instruction, way-of-life wisdom. It is studied in the story of the covenant people and the peoples grafted onto the covenant people — an inheritance bequeathed by the Bible. All insight into the hallowing way is torah, but it can't be abstracted out of history into timeless creeds, personal pieties, or politically correct theologies that exist apart from the life of a people. 5
I think Jim was right. Our task is not to create a master plan for a huge movement of resistance. Instead, it's about faith communities simply doing their best to act together to seek, do and study torah. Moral leadership as a seeking of torah is not something that can be learned and recited. It must be practiced by a community as that community seeks to weave a covenant of respect for all life into all that it does.
In the end, though, Jim's leadership was a testament not only to community, but also to what he called "the Quixotic Principle." New moments happen first when someone takes a risk and steps forward. "To open the way, a cultural breakthrough need not involve masses of people but must be done decisively by someone."6 Jim lived that kind of quixotic leadership in his quiet, bold, unassuming way. The earliest moments of the sanctuary movement to support Central American refugees involved Jim and his wife, Pat, providing hospitality to dozens of refugees in their small apartment, long before "church" emerged to take up the task.
Jim's jacket hangs in my closet, not as a memory of the past, but as a challenge for the future. I am convinced that the principles of civil initiative can be woven into the life of our community wherever we are. The question is this: are we willing to embrace this kind of leadership? It is leadership that is quiet, unassuming, bold and prophetic, as Jim was. Perhaps, Jim's wisdom from the desert points the way toward leadership for our time.
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For some of the insights in this essay, I am indebted to my friend Daniel Baker, who is preparing Jim's final manuscript for publication. I am further indebted to the hundreds of volunteers of Humane Borders, The Samaritans, and No More Deaths who are living Jim's legacy.
For further insights on border issues or on Jim's covenant for land redemption, see:
For additional writings by or about Jim Corbett, see:
Corbett, Jim, and Elford, Ricardo. The Servant Church. Pendle Hill Pamphlet 328. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1998.
Crittenden, Anne. Sanctuary: A Story of American Conscience and the Law in Collision. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Davidson, Miriam. Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988.