Corbett offered sanctuary to refugees


To the Central Americans whose lives he saved, Jim Corbett was a saint. To the U.S. government, he was a dangerous subversive. To those who knew him, he was a thoughtful, quiet, unassuming man. And to a world still struggling with the issues he confronted, his legacy is only beginning to be known.

Corbett, a co-founder of the 1980s Sanctuary Movement to shelter Central American refugees fleeing war and death squads in their homelands, was memorialized Sept. 1 in a Quaker-style service at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz. He died Aug. 2, at age 67, at his home in Cascabel, Ariz.

Although he led a contemplative life as a rancher, writer and teacher, Corbett rose to international prominence as a leader of the faith-based movement to protect undocumented refugees from capture and deportation by the U.S. government. He personally helped guide dozens of Salvadorans and Guatemalans to safety across the border into the United States.

Corbett’s sanctuary co-founders, including the Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, and Fr. Ricardo Elford, a Redemptorist priest, recognize him as the guiding spiritual and intellectual force behind the movement.

“He was religiously all-inclusive -- catholic with a small c,” Elford said. “His inclusive spirit reached out to the Earth and animals as much as it reached out to people.”

Corbett’s moral philosophy of living simply and humbly in harmony with nature was based on his Quaker beliefs in nonviolence and respect for life, his studies at Colgate and Harvard, and his experiences as a rancher and goatherd in southern Arizona and Mexico.

“He was at home with cows, with sleeping on the ground, and yet he was so, so smart,” Elford said.

Corbett was drawn into refugee work in 1981, after a friend picked up a Salvadoran hitchhiker who subsequently was arrested and deported. In trying to determine the hitchhiker’s whereabouts, Corbett learned that many Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees were suffering similar fates, despite legitimate claims to political asylum.

Corbett and others began helping refugees to avoid capture, yet he insisted that what they were doing was not “civil disobedience.” He argued instead that it was “civil initiative” -- they were upholding laws regarding treatment of war refugees that the U.S. government refused to enforce. On March 24, 1982, Southside Presbyterian became the first church in the country to declare itself a sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing persecution.

The movement quickly gained attention and acceptance. At its height, more than 200 religious orders and congregations nationwide, several universities and municipalities, and more than 600 religious organizations, including the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (representing more than 33,000 Catholic priests) declared themselves in favor of sanctuary. In 1984, Corbett accepted the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award on behalf of the movement.

Rejecting the claim that sanctuary was in fact upholding the law, the U.S. government moved against its leaders. In January 1985, Corbett and 10 others, including two Catholic priests and several religious lay workers, were indicted on alien-smuggling charges. After a six-month trial in Tucson, eight were convicted of various felonies. All received probation. Corbett, who by this time had taken a less public role in sanctuary, was among the three who were acquitted.

Corbett retired to rural Arizona, where he and his wife, Pat, founded an intentional community, the Saguaro-Juniper Association, which is based on principles of land, plant and animal protection. The association eventually grew to encompass 1,100 acres and includes a spiritual retreat center called the Cascabel Hermitage.

Corbett continued to write and speak out against the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the exploitation of undocumented workers and the increasing numbers of Mexicans suffering and dying in the desert. “One day,” he told a reporter, “we will be as ashamed of borders as we are of slavery.”

He published one book of philosophy, called Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living, a Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom, and was working to complete another when he was struck by cerebellar paraneoplastic syndrome, a rare and fast-moving cancer of the central nervous system.

In Goatwalking, Corbett contemplated what his legacy might be:

“On the prairie, when the wind wails a dirge and snow sifts in rivulets through the sagebrush, I’ve hugged the sticky-pink, death-chilled body of a newborn lamb under my coat, and its heart fluttered in reply.

“And on a desert mountain, amidst the hush of soaring granite, I’ve opened a forgotten spring. The few who remembered thought it had long ago gone dry, but I found the hidden place and dug down until a stream ran clear and cold in the summer sun.

“So what are epitaphs to me? I’ve shared life’s warmth with a lamb. I’ve opened a desert spring.”

Indeed he did. And so much more.

Miriam Davidson is a Tucson-based journalist and author of Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement (University of Arizona Press, 1988) as well as the recent Lives on the Line: Dispatches from the U.S.-Mexico Border (UA Press, 2000).

National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001