Holding Light in the Darkness: Detention Center Pilgrimage

Article by Kevin Tuerff

Photos by Donald Kennedy

Imagine if someone kidnapped you, and then threatened to murder you. You escaped, police wouldn't protect you. Wouldn’t you flee to save your own life?

If this happened to you, and you managed to get a visa to the U.S., and you declared asylum at JFK airport—imagine if you were then shackled and handcuffed. Your luggage is taken from you and you are forced to wear a blue prison jumpsuit. You would be taken to corporate-run jail for at least six months while you await a hearing from an immigration judge. Inside, you would be offered food which was often inedible. You would have little access to medical care. If you were lucky, you have volunteers from a church who accompanied you in detention, coming weekly for a one-hour visit. If you were lucky, you would have help from a probono attorney; otherwise you would likely be deported and sent back into harm’s way.

If you were granted asylum, freed from this nightmare, would you return to the detention center soon thereafter to join a prayer vigil and visit other detainees?

Sam, a new refugee from West Africa, did just that on Sunday, Sept. 16 at Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. There he joined more than 100 parishioners of the New York City Churches of St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius to participate in the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s (ISN) Light in the Darkness vigil and pilgrimage. He and others stood in solidarity with immigrants facing deportation, and with refugees seeking asylum, offering prayers and songs. Other groups participated as well including the Migrant Center at St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic Workers, and the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth.

More than 100 pilgrimage participants walked a 30-minute journey through a Newark, N.J., warehouse district to Elizabeth Detention Center.

In every Catholic church, a candle perpetually burns near the tabernacle as a reminder of the presence of the Body of Christ. The ISN program invited Jesuit parishes, schools and individuals to join in the ancient tradition of keeping vigil and uniting in solidarity with immigrant families separated at the southern U.S. border, scattered across continents by forced migration or torn apart by deportation.

Sam shared his stories of the terrible conditions in detention and led the group in a prayer for the 400 detainees inside who are seeking freedom in the United States.

Sam told those gathered, “For seven months, inside this detention center, I never saw the sun, or breathed fresh air. I was forced to flee from my home, but I never thought I would be treated like a criminal when I came to America, seeking asylum. It was torture.”

God of compassion, We seek your protection and comfort for immigrant families. For families separated by violence and destruction, forced to flee their homes and everything they know; For the asylum-seeking families separated in the name of border security; For parents who send their children alone to a new land in hope of building a future for them; For families separated here in our country by deportation; Provide solace and peace to these families. Comfort them in their time of sorrow. Guide those in positions of power toward compassion. Grant us the courage and compassion to be a presence of welcome, of radical hospitality for the most vulnerable in our midst. Amen.
When one of the guards at the Center came outside to dissuade the group from getting close, Sam went and shook hands with his former captor. It was a powerful moment.

The group walked two-by-two for more than 30 minutes in the heat, going from the nearest transit stop, past a maze of distribution warehouses, to the corporaterun detention center. When detainees are granted asylum there, they are usually set free in the middle of the night with no assistance in finding public transportation to a refugee shelter.

Immigrants detained by ICE are held under civil, not criminal, law. According to the International Detention Coalition, dozens of countries only use detention as a last resort for migrants seeking refuge. Instead, they require weekly check-ins with immigration court officers or wearing of ankle bracelets. Recent news reports have shed light on the horrific plight of migrant children also being held in detention, separated from their parents.

Fr. Dan Corrou, SJ, leading those gathered for the vigil in prayer

Fr. Dan Corrou, SJ, acting pastor at Church of St. Francis Xavier, led the group in prayer, saying, “We gather in this sea of warehouses to remember that no humans should be treated as commodities. All humans possess dignity and a violation of the dignity of one of our companions is a violation of the dignity of all.”

Elsewhere along the East Coast, Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., and St. Ignatius Parish in Baltimore, Md., planned a Nov. 16 vigil to the ICE office based in Baltimore. St. Ignatius Loyola Parish in Chestnut Hill, Mass., has also planned a mid-December event; these two gatherings occurred after this printing.

Kevin Tuerff (@channelof_peace) is a parishioner at the Church of St. Francis Xavier. His true story of being an American 9/11 refugee is portrayed in the Broadway musical Come From Away, and his memoir, “Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11.”

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