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The rising autocrats. The melting ice caps. The widening gyre of economic inequality. And now the tide of refugees from Ukraine, not just flowing into Poland but gathering at U.S. borders as well.
The crises facing us today are not local, national, or even continental in scope. They are global, they are interconnected, and they seem to demand big solutions. Yet, our few functioning transnational institutions are struggling to meet the demands of the moment. If international aid organizations like the Red Cross and the UNHCR continue to do heroic work in the face of the migration crisis, might smaller solutions work better?
In fact, one Catholic group has proven particularly effective in organizing a transnational response to the global migration crisis: the Community of Sant’Egidio.
This group is not a service organization but a group of friends (an “ecclesial movement,” in Catholic parlance) who attempt to live their religious lives close to one another and to the vulnerable, a commitment envisioned by the Fathers of the second Vatican Council. They are the Community of Sant’Egidio, and the program that they constructed in partnership with other religious organizations is known as the Humanitarian Corridor Initiative.
Founded just over fifty years ago by a group of high school students in Rome, Sant‘Egidio did not originate with the ambitions to solve even local, Roman social issues, much less global ones. And yet, their ambition—to form a religiously-serious community of lay people capable of acting in the plural public sphere without any nostalgia for a bygone Christendom—came to play a major role in international peacemaking in places as varied as Mozambique, the Balkans, and South Sudan. This transnational peacemaking experience left their organization well-prepared to respond when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghanis, and Iraqis were then displaced in the mid-2010s.
It was this crisis that spurred Sant’Egidio to advocate for the construction of what have become known as “humanitarian corridors,” an idea that has become vital to saving thousands of lives in Ukraine.
The idea of humanitarian corridors arose in 2016 as thousands of asylum seekers sought to cross the Mediterranean to safety in the European Union. Members of Sant’Egidio were struck by how these women and men, fleeing violence and political instability in their homelands, were met not only with suspicion but mountains of red tape. Rather than turning away, they imagined and constructed a transnational response, and made alliances with other religious groups, when the conventional pathways that national governments had established for refugee resettlement were overwhelmed.
Taking advantage of existing laws, over the past six years this coalition has institutionalized a pathway upon which migrants and refugees can journey to safety through the humanitarian visa program. This involves the long, unglamorous, work of identifying eligible candidates, applying for visas on their behalf, arranging for their transportation to host countries, and providing for their integration into society with language programs and asylum applications.
This grassroots network of religious actors has carved out a new path to safety so effectively that a program initially limited to Italy has expanded to include host sites in other countries like Belgium and France. In response to President Biden’s revisions of the Trump-era migration policies, advocacy are even promoting a similar program in the United States.
Although it does not “solve” the global refugee crisis, Sant‘Egidio’s activism is evidence that global public religions, acting within civil society and motivated by their own religious ideals, have the capacity to respond to large crises. A transnational religious institutions, it can not only imagine a transnational response, but it can also implement one because it can motivate its members to do the hard, multi-layered work that is required to address migrants’ complex needs.
Contrary to the long-held Enlightenment expectation that religion should be cordoned off from secular society, in a highly interconnected and bureaucratic world, a global public religion serves a bridging function. Networks of faith can link together and make sense of diverse institutional actors, forging them into new networks that span civil society, the market, and the state.
A solution that evades the limits of institutions, it is not “Sant’Egidio” as an institution, after all, that made the Humanitarian Corridor Initiative happen—it was actual people who have participated in a particular Catholic community who imagine and realize relationships between themselves, others, and the world that generates forms of public solidarity like the Humanitarian Corridor Initiative.
In other words, Sant’Egidio is as much a sociological phenomenon as a religious one.
It took some three years of immersive participation in the literature, practices, and discourses of the Community of Sant’Egidio before I could begin to see how the innovative transnational interventions for which they are famous are linked to their everyday practices. What I discovered was that the way they structured their daily lives, particularly through practices of friendship with marginalized persons, induced in them a religious identity. This identity was open enough to respond to the needs of strangers as individuals and capacious enough to imagine a structural solution like the Humanitarian Corridor Initiative.
What, then, are these practices? And what kind of religious self do they fashion?
Sant’Egidio is a largely urban organization, with communities in cities like New York, Rome, and Havana. In each location, Sant’Egidio members make it a habit to become friends with those the city has discarded, particularly those who make their homes in bus shelters, train stations, and urban backstreets. Friendship with the homeless, I found, reshapes the “sensorium” of Sant’Egidio members—it induces in them a new way of seeing and hearing that can then permit a global imagination.
A brief story may help to illustrate this.
When I first accompanied a Sant’Egidio member, Antonietta (a pseudonym), on regular visits to friends who live on the streets of America’s largest metropolis, I realized that her knowledge about a city where I had lived for years was qualitatively different from my own. I was accustomed to New York’s pace, and I had learned how to move through it. I had adopted the diagonal tilt of the shoulders, the unacknowledged sidestep, that New Yorkers deploy to give one another a sliver of sidewalk room in a city of 8 million.
In this and a dozen other ways my senses had been comported to the city, my body instructed by it. And although I did not realize it at the time, a key part of the embodied knowledge I had mastered was what I ought to see and what—or who—I ought to overlook.
This crystallized for me while Antonietta and I were walking along 32nd Street, bags filled with tins of homemade pasta in our hands. At one point she called out “There is my friend!” and pointed across the crowded street. “Where?” I replied, the bags preventing me from wiping the summer sweat from my eyes. “Right there,” she answered, gesturing once again.
“I don’t see anyone,” I replied to her after a moment. At this Antonietta smiled. The traffic parted, and she dashed across the street, a tiny arrow headed directly for someone invisible to my untrained eyes.
My confusion didn’t last long: only the few seconds it took to follow her from one side of the street to the other. And in that interval, instead of training my sights on the traffic or well-manicured commuters, instead of allowing my senses to be captured by the bright lights or the heat, I saw what Antonietta already knew how to see. A person. A person suddenly visible beside the shopping cart with all her worldly possessions were kept.
A woman draped in baggy clothes rose to embrace Antonietta, her friend.
Months later, I asked Antonietta about this experience. Had she, too, experienced a similar transition from living in Manhattan as a stranger among strangers to a friend among friends? “Absolutely,” she replied, “absolutely… Things I didn’t notice before, either because I was distracted or because I was trying to avoid them because they were a scar in my daily routine, now I seem to see them. And, well, they are still painful to see, to watch, to witness sometimes. And most of the time I cannot do much. But at least I have a different sensitivity.”
In my own search for a word to describe this Sant’Egidio sensitivity I eventually settled on “disponibilità,” the Italian word for “availability.” It fits in part because it connotes not only of being open to something but being positively disposed towards it. But what for Sant’Egidio members is that this generosity is a way of sensing the world that they cultivate.
This is evident not only in who Sant’Egidio members can see but in how they include the marginalized in their everyday lives. They organize vacations for both themselves and their homeless friends, and they allow themselves to be interrupted at work and at home by the needs of those they have befriended. For Sant’Egidio members, in other words, this is not a part-time occupation, or a service activity performed in one’s spare time. Instead, it is the “availability” to become a certain kind of person.
Years after I first walked the streets with Antoinetta, although I am still embarrassed at my blindness, the months I spent with Sant’Egidio members taught me how to see. It wasn’t that I chose to overlook Antonietta’s friend, it was that I had grown accustomed to giving my attention to certain sights and certain people and withdrawing it from others. I had learned to inhabit the city like a stranger, not a friend. Allowing otherwise-ignored persons to make a claim on one’s senses and lives marks out the distinct religious identity of a member of Sant’Egidio.
This capacity to hear and see those who otherwise go unheard and overlooked allows Sant’Egidio members not only to befriend members of Manhattan’s homeless population but to imagine that Syrian refugees cast adrift by the scourge of war are potential friends with whom life might be shared as well.
This is how the idea of humanitarian corridors emerged to guide victims of war away towards safety. As the late Saba Mahmood argued, it is “impossible to understand the political agency of [a] movement without a proper grasp of its ethical agency. [A movement’s] political project… can only be understood through an exploration of their ethical practices.” It is not enough to simply point out that Sant’Egidio is a global public religious institution capable of offering a response to our migration crisis. The question is: how do they do it? How does a community of persons become capable of generating and sustaining effective, ethical action?
We must see more in “religion” than an amorphous mass of unreasonable persons, even though forms of anti-democratic religious nationalism are fueled by the faithful. Instead, by discriminating between types of global public religion and the type of person that incarnates it, we can identify unexpected allies who arrive with unlooked for capacities—capacities that can perhaps serve as mortar to shore up the walls of our decaying public.
Of course, the type of global public religion that the Sant’Egidio community offers no silver bullet for those who are internally displaced or pushed across borders. And yet, secularism and secularists cannot combat these crises alone. Although a magical solution is not at hand, a certain form of help is. The question that remains is whether new, secular-religious, transnational alliances can be formed. Can there be new collaborations between these old rivals?
Yes, if we can at last admit our normative differences while still celebrating our shared desire for a stable, free, democratic, differentiated, modern world order.
Patrick Gilger is Associate Professor of Sociology at Loyola University.