Call for Involvement of Faith Communities in Detention Visitation Programs

Visiting Immigrant women in Detention in Taylor, Texas, came into my life at a particular time.  The first year of my return to Austin, after more than 4 years teaching in Xalapa, Mexico was rough.  Finally I turned 62 and began to receive a small income from sociasecurity– as well as land a studio apartment in a Foundations Communities property. Within weeks of moving into my own place and regaining some stability in my life, I attended an Orientation to Visitation.  Geoff Valdes, who was an old friend from when we were part of Accion Zapatista, had suggested the Hutto Visitation Program to me when I told him that I wanted to get involved with something meaningful – where I could use my Spanish.

In November of 2011 I made my first visit to Hutto, with a woman who had been visiting a woman from Guatemala for a month or so already.  After talking to me on a couple of visits, the Guatemalan woman told me that she knew a woman from Honduras who really needed a visit. That is when I met the first woman I would know from Honduras.  Then there was another woman who wanted a visitor; she was from El Salvador.  I have continued to visit, woman after woman, as ICE continues in its relentless seize and capture mission of Central American refugees.  I have never been to Central America – though some astute students of Colonial and Imperialist history of the region might allow me to count three months in Chiapas as Central America.

I began to see how American foreign affairs created the situations from which these women fled.  The expression, “American foreign affairs” is actually a terrible euphemism for the wars, economic appropriations and genocide, both cultural and actual, that American policy has perpetrated on the peoples of this region.  I came to realize that recognizing these historical facts and then working to alleviate the suffering and misery of those marked by these policies – would actually impact my own spiritual and ethical development.

Those of us involved in the struggle for immigrant justice often use the language of politics and the social sciences to analyze the issues.  And yet it appears that many of the people across the country who work in visiting those in Immigrant Detention come from the faith community.  Full disclosure:  my B.A. is in Religion, with a minor in Women’s Studies.  In the years I have been visiting, I have visited with women from Unitarian Universalist congregations, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists.  I imagine other faiths are also represented in the Hutto Visitation Program and I apologize if I have left them out of this list.

You may be familiar with the unique historical context of Central America, including the many atrocities committed there by various parties. I could tell you many individual stories of why women are fleeing now but they fall in rather constant categories: domestic violence, gang violence, police and military violence, the violence of poverty, and the violence of despair. 

Those of us who visit regularly need a space to unburden ourselves, and communicate with each other. To that end, community and spiritual spaces are becoming increasingly important. We who listen need to sit in silence, albeit a creative silence that allows for reflection and re-charging of the fragile human batteries that are our hearts.  My friend, Scot Crow, and I talk more and more about the Anarchist concept of the “emergency heart” that responds to crisis.  For those who have already been called to visit those on death row or make prison visits, you know of what I speak.

I remind you that at this moment there are detention centers all across America – with Texas having the dubious honor of having the most – 25 and growing daily.  They are American gulags.  Allow your emergency hearts to respond to those who sit in Immigrant Detention.  Come visit. You may be surprised at how your spirit will be touched.

Photo from flickr user fotosiggi.