In November 2016, America and the rest of the world were stunned when a candidate whose platform included harming immigrants and discriminating against certain citizens won the presidency. When I learned he’d been voted in, my heart sank, realizing that America had become even less of a place I can call home. Many of us had been living under a constant threat of harm for decades. Now, the blatant hatred ignored by so many others could no longer go unacknowledged. Many would recognize and join a shared sense of homelessness.
My parents were born and raised in southern Louisiana at the turn of the twentieth century, not far from the plantations where their ancestors labored as slaves, and where lynchings of their neighbors occurred often. While I’m certain they did not feel at home in that environment, there was sanctuary among others who embraced the black Creole culture. Because of their cultural sanctuary, I am able to experience a sense of home in my heart. Although I wasn’t born or raised in the homeplace of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, the bayou, swamps, music, foods, and eloquent Creole language were transmitted to me through my parents’ very being. The cultural, ecological, and social life of Louisiana is in my bones, and whenever I’m there, I feel a primal sense of home—despite having never lived there.
Finding home, feeling home, and being at home are complex, multilayered, spiritual and cultural experiences independent of the place we live. Where is home? What is my true nature, and what does it mean to be at home with it? When I don’t feel at home, where can I find sanctuary? These questions become critical when our lives are under threat.
In the early twenty-first century, groups are still being terrorized because of race, religious choice, physical ability, class, sexual orientation, and gender. Legendary radical feminist and academic Angela Davis points out that racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, hetero-patriarchy, and xenophobia are, in fact, the ghosts of slavery. We have returned full circle to what catalyzed the civil rights movement and forced the creation of political and spiritual sanctuaries for those who were hunted by people trying to maintain white supremacy. In my new book, Sanctuary: A Meditation on Home, Homelessness, and Belonging, I explore home and homelessness, sanctuary and refuge in the light of such terrorism and its impact on life, death, identity, and peace.
In spiritual communities, especially in Buddhist ones, the teachings on finding home are profound, but they often leave out the experiences of those who are dehumanized in their own homeland. Spiritual teachings like, “Home is within the heart” can be off-putting when loss and disconnection aren’t also acknowledged. Those who have such experiences can feel homeless spiritually and physically, and finding refuge, or sanctuary, from acts of hatred must be offered along the path of finding our true home.
I was invited to give a talk at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California. When I arrived, I saw a sign in Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful calligraphy that said, “I am home.” When I saw it, the words rang through me as though I were hearing a temple bell. I felt relieved, and my heart knew I was home. I don’t live at Deer Park, but reading the Zen master’s words, I felt deeply at home. The home I felt isn’t on the earth; it dwells in my heart. How was I able to recognize a home not visible but felt? Is a home like this momentary, or can I feel it wherever I go?
Deer Park, with its tree-covered hills, is a place where prayer, meditation, and song shape the sense of place and bring the visitor peace. It’s a true sanctuary, offering immunity and refuge for troubled folks in troubled times. Sanctuary, from the old French sanctuaire and the Latin sanctuarium or sanctus, meaning “holy,” is essential for those of us who live day in and day out in chaos and oppression, where belonging is never guaranteed. As I walked the monastery’s paths, I affirmed in my heart that my true home must have peace.
What leads a person to homelessness? What happens when your home doesn’t have the peace you’d hoped for? If we look at the impact of history, culture, and ancestry on finding home, we begin to understand the vastness of homelessness. The words “I am home” don’t resonate for many who are marginalized by society. When we recognize the profound influence of social factors upon homelessness, then compassion, forgiveness, and similar virtues can carry us home.
If you have a sense of not belonging based on prolonged, systemic mistreatment, if you’ve been a target of hatred and violence, that disregard affects your well-being. In a relative sense, those who are dehumanized are never home. In the absolute sense, home is in the heart and cannot be touched by any outside force, even the most oppressive. Both senses are true. Oppressed groups live with the paradox that we are and are not home. While we are encouraged to make a home in this country, manifesting such is a struggle.
When I was eleven-years old, my family was having a tough time. One evening at dinner, the meat was stringy, and I asked, “Daddy, what’s this?” My father proudly answered, “Possum. I caught it in the backyard.” I didn’t know what a possum looked like. All I could think of was the blood that might still be behind the house. I dropped the meat from my fork. My father, from the back roads of Opelousas, was doing what he’d always done to survive hard times. It wouldn’t be long before we received our first—and last—bag of groceries from the welfare office. We were too proud to continue.
I remember saying to myself, I will never be as poor as my parents. I wanted to feel that I could get what I needed. And I know that when my father promised each of his three daughters a Cadillac and a house, he meant for us to be better off than he was. First, second, and third-generation African Americans who migrated north were supposed to succeed, and our progress was measured by external appearances. Most important was to have a roof over our heads. When you lose your house, you feel like a failure—a disappointment to yourself and your family.
Owning a home is a marker of stability and success, but today it’s impossible for many of us to purchase property in the places we grew up. Imagine the assault on the heart when you are living in a homeless shelter or on the streets. How can we own the home we know and love? There are many ways to overcome physical homelessness. One is to redistribute wealth and return stolen territory. Another is to heal and disrupt the disconnections that result in disproportionate wealth, colonization, and occupation. When you consider the destruction of others’ homelands and cultures and how it impacts their quest for home, the difficulty in overcoming spiritual homelessness is clear.
Enslaved Africans did not immigrate to America. In fact, many black people were here before the first colonists or slaves arrived. Native Americans did not give away their land; it was stolen. Holocausts for Jewish Americans, Armenians, Rwandans, and others did take place. Rape is used as a weapon against women. Muslims are harassed and annihilated. Perpetrators of all races murder transgendered people. What if those who have been pushed to the economic, political, and social margins were seen and their true histories revealed while presenting the teachings of finding one’s true home? Would that help us understand the depth of our connections or disconnections to each other and facilitate the quest for an authentic home?
As I explore the epidemic of homelessness and the urgent need for sanctuary historically and in our time, I taste the tears of so many. How much longer will those who have been pushed out be able to survive? Is there too much water under the bridge to reconcile our disconnections from one another as people? If we are not paying attention to who and what is unacknowledged, we’ll always have dangerous demagogues who shake us loose from the illusion that all is well. They are a curse and a blessing, as they help us remember what matters. Patience is more than waiting and hoping. Patience is taking the time to love what is difficult to love.
Sanctuary is the place we can go when our lives are under threat, where we can consider love in the midst of oppression. It’s a place for those who speak a language not of the dominant culture, a place where anyone can say, “I am home.”
Taking sanctuary is an act of saving one’s life from the suffering of the world.
After one receives Buddhist monastic vows, homelessness and sanctuary become one and the same. This homelessness is an intentional disengagement from the chaos most people on earth endure daily. Monastics take refuge, and the spiritual life becomes their sanctuary.
I once met a nun of Buddha’s forest tradition. I asked, “Where are you from?” She said, “Nowhere.” I followed with, “I mean where do you live?” She said, “Nowhere.”
My teacher was sitting nearby and overheard us. She said, “Ask where will she sleep tonight?” The nun lived nowhere but would be sleeping somewhere. The homeless mendicant smiled, and the conversation was over. Like Buddha, the earth was her pillow, the place upon which she would claim no territory, no country, no land, and no house. Instead she would trust the Earth as her mother to care for her. No matter where she lay her head, she wouldn’t claim that place as her own. To some, this sounds romantic, to others too great a hardship to imagine.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are monks and nuns who have been exiled from their native lands, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. They were forced to leave families and sanghas and create new lives in foreign lands. To their credit, both have created potent sanctuaries for millions in duress and both became prolific in articulating the spiritual path. They did it as a direct response to the hatred and homelessness they themselves experienced. Sanctuary is a place you create when you are “missing” in the scheme of humanity. Establishing sanctuary is critical to finding home.
In my book, I explore a broad perspective on homelessness, physical and spiritual, and the act of creating sanctuary as a response to the hunger for home. I try to expand the spiritual teachings on finding home to recognize societal influences, the longing for connection to the earth and each other, and finding spiritual and cultural sanctuary. Along with this inquiry on sanctuary, I examine several kinds of home and homelessness including urban displacement; historical and political loss of land, culture, and language; as well as religious and spiritual quests for home. I dug my feet into the mud and waited to see what would emerge concerning the homeless condition of every living being—our insecurities, experiences, and threats to our sense of belonging.
Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, PhD, a Soto Zen priest, was born to parents who migrated from rural Louisiana and settled in Los Angeles, where she was born and raised with her two sisters. She is the author of The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender, Tell Me Something About Buddhism, and, most recently, Sanctuary: A Meditation on Home, Homelessness, and Belonging, from which this article is adapted with permission of Wisdom Publications.