Forget the orange jumps suits and sandals, the uniformed armed guards, the sterile locked room… because for a couple of hours it is Beth-El Sanctuary. You can sense Father Abraham’s spirit of faith supporting action.
Once a month, Joanne and I visit the Kenosha Detention center for immigrants. It’s a cleansing but overwhelming experience. The visiting program, the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants, is sponsored and run by the Mercy sisters of Chicago.
The prisoners are marched into the room and we sit around tables for discussion. My first impression is – they are young men - these are just kids – what are they doing here?
The discussions are serious – do you have family here – do you expect to be deported – what about your children? There is not much Joanne and I can do; I often try to lighten the conversation and sometimes it’s an embarrassing failure. A couple of weeks before Christmas we were talking to an inmate named Nicholas and a couple of others. They talked about their families. With an attempt at humor I said,
How can we celebrate Christmas when Nichols is in jail?
Get it – St. Nick? No one laughed including Joanne. I thought I’d try again when our supervisor came to our table. She listened to the ‘joke’ – tears came to her eyes, and she walked away. To see Dads locked in prison at Christmas time is just painfully sad; a poor attempt at humor doesn’t help. As always we prayed – faith and hope of liberation were still there despite imprisonment caused by of a broken immigration system.
“From the depths I call to you Yahweh, Lord listen to my call for help…” Psalm 130
When the prisoners come to the table we introduce ourselves. A young beardless man presented himself:
I am Inocensio.
Yes, I said – as everyone, but what is your name?
Inocensio, (he said again– I got it)
I’m Bill - good to meet you.
Inocencio had signed deportation papers, but wants to see his mother before he leaves for his home country. She is in Chicago and dying of cancer. The Mercy Sisters promised to help. We prayed.
“Yahweh, be my judge! I go my way in my innocence, My trust in Yahweh never wavers.” Psalm 26
I talked to the Center’s Chaplain, who is Muslim, about the dispute over prayer times at Ariens Manufacturing in Brillion, WI. Muslim workers from Somalia walked off the job because of restrictions on prayer. The chaplain was clearly moved. He said he would do the same as the workers if he were in a similar situation. “To pray is who I am – it’s a matter of identity.” There are no prayer restrictions at the detention center.
“O God, you are my God – for you I long! For you my body yearns, for you my soul thirsts.” Psalm 63
I find it difficult to go to the immigration prison; I couldn’t do it alone, but it is a valuable religious experience. It’s a time of energizing awareness – “concientizacion” in Spanish. Prayer, justice and faith are intertwined. All the motivation a person might need in the struggle - jihad - to change the cruel and unjust immigration system is right there at Beth – El.
“To Yahweh belong earth and all it holds, the world and all who live in it; Yahweh founded it on the seas, based it firmly on over the rivers.” Psalm 24