During Thanksgiving our volunteers met to hangout and write letters to men and women in Detention. Last week, I got a letter from an immigrant in response to a letter I sent.
Tonight I went back to the detention center with three other volunteers. Thanksgiving weekend. My first visit after the election. These visits are hard. This time I was smarter. I got a lovely massage right before I went. I was feeling strong and relaxed.
Our crew visited with 5 men. I didn’t actually visit directly with anyone just because of the way things worked out, but I was still glad I went. You’ll see why.
When I arrived, the parking lot was packed. There was only one spot for my car. I got out and was greeted by a guard patrolling the lot. I passed a young mom trying to extract an infant carrier from her car and walked into the building. The lobby was also packed. Standing room only. There were a lot of children. I counted at least 10 kiddos circulating between the lobby and the visiting area.
The volunteers and I coordinated our visits with the guard and settled in to wait. I got a locker for us and put our things inside. I surveyed the room. We four volunteers were the only white people to be found. An adorable little girl was skipping around in a hot pink dress with purple shoes. I counted 3 infant carriers. A line of little boys filled up a row of seats. A dad was herding a toddler.
Then I saw a woman sitting in a seat along the opposite wall. She looked sadder than anyone I had seen in a Long Time. She was wearing a gray head scarf. I tried to catch her eye and give her a friendly smile. A few minutes later I walked past her to the ladies room. I don’t consider myself an empath, but maybe I am. I swear this woman’s sadness was tangible. I could FEEL her sadness as I walked by her. I almost cried from the wave of it hitting me. Is that weird? I think it is. Anyway.
I came back and paced around a bit and then had to walk outside. I was in short sleeves and it was chilly but out I went, following some random little tug. I walked out across the lot and up the driveway alone. As I stood there, a young man came out of the next door building without a coat & carrying a small bag of clothes. I thought maybe he was an employee or something, getting off his shift. I didn’t really know what I was doing out there alone in the dark and cold and I started back.
The young man caught up to me. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
I was expecting to be questioned about ambling around randomly like a crazy person in the parking lot.
“Excuse me, do you have a cell phone? Would you mind if I used it to make a call? I just got out and it took too long to process everything and my ride already left and…”
I looked up at his face. He was a young black guy, with big glasses and a goofy hopeful smile. He looked like “any college kid USA” to me. I had a split second thought, “oh boy I am alone talking to a guy who just got out of jail. What did he do?” But I checked myself. Nonsense. This was a happy moment.
“Congratulations!” I said, flashing my best smile. “What’s your name?”
“Thanks. Andre. They just opened the door and I’m out, but I don’t have a phone or a ride or anything! I’m just glad to get out though. I can’t wait to see my kids. I can’t do anything for them in there.”
I handed him my phone. “Ok. Here you go, Andre.”
He made a quick call in front of me. “I’m out-out can you come get me??…yeah, this wonderful lady standing here let me borrow her phone to call you…she’s in short sleeves.”
I was touched that in this moment he was aware that I must be cold.
Apparently his family was waiting at the McDonalds across the street. His face lit up. “The one across the street?…ok!” He handed me my phone, shook my hand, earnestly thanked me and then took off running across the street.
“Godspeed, Andre!” I called after him.
I walked back into the center.
We still hadn’t been called for visits yet but in a few minutes they called 2 of the other volunteers. There was some confusion with the visits but it’s not worth explaining.
The sad woman was now sitting next to a young lady with braces- her daughter. I decided to say hi to them. I learned they were from Guatemala. It’s apparently much colder here than in Guatemala. They were there to visit their 21 year old son/brother and they had come a long way to visit today, the daughter explained. I said to the woman, “You just look so, so very sad.” She looked up at me and nodded. “It is my birthday today.” She said.
Pretty soon they were called to go visit him. I walked back with them and checked on my crew too then came back.
I found myself talking to a lost looking young black woman, about my age, wearing a college sweatshirt, in the lobby. “Do you have family in here?” She asked. She looked like she needed a friend.
“No.” I explained our volunteer role to her and answered some more questions.
“Oh wow. That’s great.” She said.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I’m here to see my brother.” She said. “He got picked up for something he did 19 years ago.” They were from Jamacia. He had come to the USA when he was 11. I guess 19 years ago he got in trouble for breaking into a vacant building. He had already served his time for that but when he got picked up for something else, it came up on his record, and he ended up in here.
“Has he ever even been back to Jamacia??” I asked.
Her face fell. “No. He doesn’t know anyone there! All of our family is here.”
She walked over to the seats trying to compose herself. I followed. “I have a brother too.” I said. I sat down next to her. “May I?” I asked. She nodded. I put my arms around this woman while she gently sobbed and sniffled, scared for her brother. “He must be scared, you must be scared.” I said.
“I just didn’t know it would be like this! I thought there would be a community room or something. Like, he’s really in prison, for something he already did time for 19 years ago. He’s never gotten in trouble since then and we can’t even be with him.”
I talked to her and her sister a while longer. None of it seemed to make much sense. He had a green card. I told her I’d been coming to visit people for more than a year now and if he had a lawyer, he’d likely be out pretty soon. I hope that is true. “His kids are freaking out. He’s very close to his kids.” She said. After a while they left and thanked us for our kindness. I promised to pray for their family.
As I was standing there, waiting for my crew to wrap up with the rest of the guys, the Guatemalan mother and daughter came back. “How is he?” I said. The daughter said he was doing pretty good. The mother just held her arms out to me for a hug. I held this woman tight for a long moment. I offered to pray for her too. She told me her name. Her son’s name. I promised not to forget.
After they left, I checked in with my volunteers who were all done now. One of them shared that her guy was brought to the US when he was 3. Now they are planning to deport him to El Salvador. “He said, ‘I’m going to get off the plane in a totally strange country and I don’t know anyone there and I don’t even speak Spanish’.”He has kids here too.
Wow. All these children. And what did they do wrong??
I didn’t visit one person who was actually in detention this time but the trip was still draining. Maybe even more so. I walked over to that McDonalds myself to decompress and as I wrote this up, I was no longer strong and relaxed. I was crying in my booth with a view of that place.
And, I can go home. And, I am a US citizen. With a good job and I am strong enough to occasionally be there for those mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and those brothers and sisters – and for Andre.
And. We will be back.
Tonight we had a group of 7 volunteers. Me, T. & S. a lovely couple from my church, R. the kind Spanish-speaking pastor, K. -a male seminary student who came with R., and J. and W. a man and woman who both work for non-profits.
We met at the center and introduced ourselves and then I set about figuring out how to organize everyone and arrange our visits with my favorite kindly guard. He knows me by now, and what we need, so everything went pretty smoothly.
J. had arrived before the rest of us and had already put his name in to visit his person. He was called early and returned before the rest of us had been assigned. I hadn’t met J. before, but I could tell he was just a decent kind of guy. Probably in his 50s, broad shoulders, sandy blond hair. He was wearing a sport coat. He walked over to our group. He looked like he was about to cry.
“How was your visit?” I asked.
“Hard.” he said.
He described his visit with a 21 year old young woman from Guatemala. J. was clearly shaken as he told us about the bad situation she’d been in… She didn’t have anyone to help her. He described her as very strong. He didn’t look well. I stood up and hugged this man I didn’t know. He hugged me back. I held him close for a minute. Sometimes, it’s all you can do.
“Thank you” he said quietly into my hair as I held him tight.
I sat back down and he told us more details as S. and K. were called for their visits over the speaker. After about 30 minutes, K. returned to our little circle. His face looked stricken.
“What happened?” I asked.
K. was in a suit. He was a seminarian in his 50s. A new volunteer. He had been talking with O., a man also in his 50s from the islands of Turks and Caicos.
O. was an “extra” on my list and I’d assigned him to K. who was also something of an “extra”- a last-minute volunteer. Unbeknownst to me when I was making assignments, K. had actually been to Turks and Caicos, so he was able to talk with O. about that. He explained that O. has been in the United States since he was in high school. Then K’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“His wife died while he’s been in prison.” He said.
The group collectively gasped.
“That’s awful!” I said. Then it got worse.
“Yes. His wife couldn’t handle him being locked up in here and she killed herself.”
“Oh my God.” I said, finally. “How long has he been in here??”
“6 months. She was a US citizen. He’s going to be deported. He has three children.”
We all stood there stunned. Taking this in. I didn’t even bother to fight my own tears. K. looked shell shocked. I stepped across the circle and hugged this man too.
“What will happen to the children?” I asked.
“They are all older; in college.” He said.
“Still.” I said.
“What can I do for him?” He asked.
“You can write to him. We can pray for him. Let me get you the address and his ID #.” I said, thankful for something to do. I left him with our group and walked over to the guard desk to get O.’s number and as I did so, I overheard S. in the visitors area talking to our Nigerian immigrant friend that we’ve visited multiple times, the one with the “me against the world tattoos.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you looking so down…” She was saying.
I stopped what I was doing and popped in behind her to grin at our friend behind the glass. S. handed me the phone. “I can’t believe you’re still in here!” I said. “I hear you’re feeling down.” He nodded. I was basically running on fumes at this point in the day but whatever. I started dancing, still holding the phone in one hand. S. got up off her stool and joined me. Two white ladies, doing a perfectly ridiculous jig right in the middle of the detention center. Entirely for his amusement. He started laughing. Really laughing. “Ok. Ok. You can stop now. That was a good laugh.” He was smiling. Shaking his head at us. I spoke to him for another minute before I was called back to the guard desk.
They were bringing our four ladies down. I helped the guard with this task and returned to the group.
K. was still reeling as I walked back over to him with the information to write to O.
“I just lost my brother. So, I could talk to him about that. It was good for me to talk to him too.” In my exhausted and saddened state, all I could do was stare at K.. So much suffering. “The Holy Spirit moves in amazing ways,” he said.
No disagreement from me.
We will be back.
I left the bar where I’d been watching the Liberty Bowl before the game was over and drove to pick up my friend from church and head back to the detention center.
On the drive, my friend A. and I chatted about life and love and church gossip. He’s a great guy and I’m looking forward to hanging out with him again and getting to know him better.
When we arrived, I was surprised to see very few cars in the lot and absolutely no one in the waiting area. We walked in. We were the only ones there.
I was happy to see the friendly guard at his post when we walked up. I’d written down the names of the people we were assigned to visit and I passed them through the slot. A. peered inside the guard’s box. “Woah. Seriously outdated technology there,” he remarked.
3 more volunteers came to join us. Just then I noticed a sign: “No visits (except legal) or programs on 1/2/16”
Huh. That explained why there were no families there. I wondered why we weren’t being turned away. I decided to leave well enough alone.
We submitted all the names and waited. The guard recognized me. He was polite and professional and kind as usual.
While we waited for our visits to be arranged, a family walked in. They didn’t know visits were cancelled for the day and they were quickly turned away. I felt sad as they walked out. Who knows how much effort it took for them to come tonight?
Then, our visits began.
Of the people I’d met with before, only S. was still on my list. I hoped all the other guys were well.
I started talking to S. again. I asked him about his new year and holidays. He said they fed them some turkey but nothing special. He said there is no update. They want to deport him but they can’t get his travel paperwork straight. We talked sports and general chit chat. He seemed in better spirits.
Then they brought 3 Spanish speaking ladies. I handed S. off to another volunteer and went to chat with two of the ladies with another volunteer.
The ladies were all in the same plain navy jumpsuits that the guys had on. They each had the same plastic wristbands.
V. is 33 years old- younger than me, but she looks 53. Her face is weather-worn and worry-wrinkled. She’s from Guatemala. Her front teeth are worn down and she has crowns but her smile is still sweet. I started speaking Spanish with her when she helpfully offered that she knew English. She has 2 kids, U.S. born – a boy and a girl- 7 and 11. One is living with her sister in another state pretty far away and one is in Guatemala with family. Her sister already has 3 kids. V. explained she was trying to cross from Guatemala to Texas and got picked up there. They flew her across the country to this facility. She has no family anywhere near this facility. She said she was worried about her babies. She was fighting back tears telling me about them. She has been locked in this facility for 6 months. Her court date isn’t for another 2 months. I asked about the dad. She shrugged, looking down. “He found another one,” she said with a weak smile, as if to say, “that’s what they do.” My heart broke. She is a single mom. So very far from home. I wished I could hug her- and her sister!
I promised to pray for her and to send her a letter. She thanked me. She said she was so surprised to have a visitor.
Next I spoke to D. D. didn’t speak any English at all so we made do with my Spanish. She’s only 20 and has one child. She is pretty and sweet and from El Salvador. She’s been in detention for about 4 months. I did most of the talking. She seemed just happy/ amused to listen to me trying to talk to her. I told her people cared about her and I would pray for her and I would send her a letter too. 20! I can’t imagine.
My friend A. had a good visit with K. from Africa. A. was wearing a cross necklace and at first K. didn’t want to say that he was a Muslim. Happily, A. is pretty well traveled, open-minded and kind, and he soon set K’s mind at ease and they were quickly chatting about politics. K. is another person who was brought to the U.S. as a child and has grown up undocumented. He’s been to prison and reported that prison was actually better than detention because, he explained, in prison there are at least activities. Here, he told A., there’s nothing to do but watch TV.
As we wrapped up, we realized that we’d missed a woman on our list! I explained to the guard. He looked at the clock. 20 minutes to 9:00. He made a face. “By the time we get her down here, you won’t have any time left.”
I made a sad face. “But even a little hello is better than nothing,” I said hopefully. He gave me a sideways glance and took the name. Pretty soon, our volunteer was chatting with a Jamacian lady. She’d left Jamacia for safety reasons but now she was about to be deported.
I was waiting in the lobby with A. watching the clock. It was now 10 after 9:00. “Sir, do you need us to wrap up? It’s after 9:00.” He looked thoughtfully over at the elderly white lady deeply engaged with the young black Jamacian woman wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit. They were the only ones in the room. He looked back at me and shrugged, conveying that, well, they are here now, a little more time wasn’t going to hurt anything or matter to him.
I sat back down and wrote that angel of a guard another thank you note. This time he slid one back as he returned my ID. “Thanks. You are such a Taurean!” It said. I smiled. How did he know I was a Taurus?? A. solved it quickly. “He looked at your ID! Nigerians are so funny like that,” A. said.
The guard smiled at me as we walked out, put his hands together and nodded.
On the way home, A. and I stopped for margaritas and food to debrief and relax.
A. said, “You know, the more you talk to people- it doesn’t matter what country they are from or religion or any of that- we are all so much the same. We all have the same fears, the same desires, the same emotions.”
We thoughtfully sipped our margaritas.
We will be back.
I met the crew at the detention center again tonight at 7:00. Our coordinator was pacing around. We had the same kind, professional guard I met the first time. A white family was in the waiting area this time – the first white family I’d seen. A few adorable toddler sized kids were running around too- kind of running wherever- around the waiting area, into the visiting area and back, down the hall- just playing chase. The guard didn’t seem to be bothered by this added chaos in the least. They were cute.
As usual, it took a while for the center to round up the people we planned to visit. We finally spoke with our people at 8.
I’d gotten a letter from M., saying he thought he’d be out by now but I learned he was still there. I got to talk to him. He said his October hearing went well and he should be out next week. His bond was set at $5,000.00 which he didn’t have so he must wait in the center. He thanked God for his pro bono lawyers and for getting out. He said he’s been fasting. He wants God to know how thankful he is to be almost out the door. He prays daily to actually get out of the door. M. talked nonstop about his hearing, the power of God, and getting out and seeing his babies again.
While we were talking, I saw J., the 23 year old who likes my cat pictures walk behind M. and he smiled and waved. M. told me that his hearing went well and he’s getting out too. “Can you believe that?”, “He represented himself and he is getting out! God is helping us.” I smiled to hear this news.
I met with S again too. S. told me he’s been stressed. “There’s a lot of stuff going on with my family,” he said. “And some of the other people in here I don’t get along with. I’ve been in here longer than all the other guys.” He said. He looked stressed too. We chatted about the weather and football and Thanksgiving. He seemed a little more relaxed after our chat? He thanked us for visiting and promised to write.
M. and S. had the exact same report about Thanksgiving dinner at the detention center: a solid “meh.” “It was Ok.” M. said. S. put his hand up in a “so-so” gesture. “Nothing like home cooked,” they both agreed.
M. reported that they feed them bread for every meal. He doesn’t think it’s good. He says they have no fresh vegetables either. “Everything is boiled. No flavor. Not even salt, no spices.” He made a face.
This visit, another volunteer met a young man who has been in detention since he was 10 years old. He’s now 18 and they are deporting him to Guatemala. The volunteer was dismayed. “He has no family there. He hasn’t lived there since he was small. What will happen to him?”
As I left I said “thank you” to the guard though the slot. He looked up and nodded to me and smiled.
On the ride home, we talked about the conflict in El Salvador, we discussed ISIS, and gang mentality in general.
What can end conflicts like this? What are pathways to peace that work?
We will be back.
Yesterday, I reached in the letter box down at DC Books to Prisons and opened up a book request from an inmate. Usually, they are fairly straightforward, but this one definitely took me by surprise. Ray’s prayer at the end is simply amazing:
In Jesus’ Name, I make a fresh & strong commitment today to live the life of love, to let the tenderness of God flow through me & heal the wounded hearts of those I meet.
Father, teach me to love even when things go wrong. To be patient & kind when the children are underfoot. To overlook the spiteful words of an angry spouse. To rejoice when someone at the office gets the raise that I thought I needed. Teach me to talk in love, to lay gossip quietly aside & to take up words of grace instead.
Lord, Your Word says that Your love is already inside me… So today, I put resentments behind me, & I forgive all those who’ve done me wrong.
In the days ahead, cause me to increase & excel & overflow with Your love. Cause me to be what this world needs most of all… A living example of love. AMEN.