By K. Scarry
“Well, at least we will have a good story to write for our back to school, what-did-you-do-this-summer papers!” she exclaimed, breaking the silence that took up space between us.
Nervous laughter jolted the tension we were all feeling, and I took inventory of my youth in the room: some were shaking, unsure, nervous; some were trying to make small talk, and all were trying not to ruffle the feathers of the officer who was watching us like a hawk.
We were at Stewart Detention Center, one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country. We had walked through the barbed wire lined fences, heard the loud, echoing clang of gates and locks, and had filled out forms to be granted admission to the visitation room.
We had spent time preparing: we listened to stories of folks who attempt to cross our borders without documentation, we were given statistics on immigration in our country and how there are 42,000 immigrants detained in the United States on any given day. We learned from El Refugio, and the hospitality work they are doing at Stewart. We heard about conditions in the detention center: how the food is sometimes unrecognizable or expired; how men with a mental health diagnosis can be sent to segregation units instead of receiving treatment.
Stewart is an old, private, medium security prison that is under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We learned about the distinctions between prison and detention—how the folks we visited have less rights than those in the American Prison system, and they also have not been convicted of a crime. Their only crime is coming to the United States without documentation.
Aside from the planning and training, I had met with each one of our youth, giving them space to process concerns and to name whether or not they preferred to go inside or stay back and write letters. Though many were nervous, they all chose to go.
The youth aged 12-18 understood already what I was desperate to teach them: we are going to see human beings. The gospel propels us to believe in and respond to their personhood, no matter our political preference, no matter their actions.
A sharp “okay, come with me,” ended our waiting time and ushered us through a metal detector and back to a grim hallway. A security guard gave us our final instructions before opening the door to the visitation room.
The first thing we saw were books and toys, a place set for children to play as their relatives visited. When we turned the corner, a row of chairs were pressed up against the cinder block wall, a classic movie scene: the phone booth style visitation space. Plexiglass separated us from the men we would soon meet, and we would take our place at plastic chairs in one of the booths in front of us.
Stewart permits a detainee to have a single one hour visit per week. We were it. We were divided into teams of 3, one chaperone and two youth, each matched with one man to get to know. El Refugio had set up these visits for us, with men who requested visitors. It was a day of debunking the narratives we had been given by our culture, our political leaders, and our media. The 8 men our group met with were all from different countries. When the door to the visitation room closed, we learned a deeper story of these men than our news would like us to acknowledge:
One had spent time fighting for women’s rights in the Middle East, and came here seeking asylum after he received threats because of this work.
One was from the same country as one of my youth, with a daughter her age he hadn’t seen in three years.
One shared that this was the 8th or 9th detention center he had been moved to since his arrival to the United States 18 months earlier.
One had lived alone in the U.S. since he was a child, and had since become a pastor.
The youth who came with me were the most nervous of the group. They had decided they would go inside, but didn’t want to talk to anyone. The space was intimidating, and I recognized their courage in even going inside. I affirmed that their presence mattered in the space, and that I would talk to our new friend, introduce them, and they could provide the ministry of presence.
After I introduced myself, I started to learn details of this man’s story. He shared with me unparalleled stories of pain, of heartache, of fear, of suffering, of injustice. I could only meet most of what he said with silence, letting the weight of his sharing settle on my shoulders. As he continued to share, one of my youth tapped me on the shoulder, “okay,” he said, “it’s my turn!”
The boy who had resolved to go, but not say anything, demanded a chance to sit with and get to know this man also.
It was not long before their laughter cut through the air. My once nervous youth was himself again, sitting with a man he had never met—both of whom could not regroup, laughing so hard, together across the glass.
It was the picture of the gospel to me. Unlikely connections, a relentless commitment to seeing the humanity in one another, a commitment to showing up for one another and to upholding the dignity and imago dei of all people. Here was an inbreaking of joy in one of America’s darkest spaces.
When I asked my youth afterwards what was so funny, he said, “we were sharing about our favorite Spongebob episodes.” Of course.
As we prepared to leave, I picked the phone one last time to say goodbye to our new friend. Tears filled his eyes as he shared with me “I found out this morning that I will be deported soon.” The to-be-pastor in me wanted to offer some sort of hope, but my words failed me. I looked and saw that, in that moment, he was not feeling the same sort of despair: “K,” he said, “I did not know when I would feel happy again. But today, you all brought me joy.”
K Scarry is a CBF Leadership Scholar and Master of Divinity student at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C. She currently lives in Herndon, Va., and is curious about the intersection of the gospel, justice, and community. K works for a non-profit called The People’s Supper, which works all over the country to facilitate meals together to bridge people across lines of division—be it political, racial, class, religious, etc. She also works with the youth group at the First Baptist Church of Herndon, Virginia.