“Holy Week is a special time for us…” Ruth told me in her detention robe. “Jesus’ passion gives us perspective to see that our situation is nothing compared to what Jesus suffered on the Cross. His journey encourages us to keep going.”
Ruth’s words were as disarming as the joy in her face as she uttered them. As a mental health counselor I often get to walk with people in the midst of their suffering. A normal response for most of us is to do everything we can to avoid pain. However, there are some like Ruth, for whom running away from tribulation is not an option; they do not have the privilege of avoidance nor the assurance of relief.
In order to fully appreciate the significance of what Ruth is saying, let me tell you a bit more about her situation, and that of thousands of other migrants detained across privately run detention centers in the US.
Ruth is a woman from Central America who has been in administrative detention at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma for over a year, waiting to hear a decision on her asylum based on intimate partner violence. Like most undocumented migrants in prison, Ruth’s detention serves no other purpose than administrative convenience; she was not charged with a crime, nor does she represent a threat to public safety. These migrants are detained indefinitely, without right to free counsel or bail. Plainly, their lack of migrant status alone makes them vulnerable to be the object of profit for the corporation running these jails. Separated from their children and loved ones, and exposed to a series of abuses in detention, migrants constitute an oppressed group within US society. It is within this context that their faith takes the form of peaceful resistance; a way to tell an alternative story of liberation by submitting themselves to God.
Ruth’s confession of faith is just one expression of the movement that has emerged at the NWDC. This movement consists of spontaneous bible studies and prayer groups, many of which take place three times a day. During the weekend ministries like World Relief organize services in languages ranging from Spanish to Russian. However, the strength of this movement lies in its decentralized, unprompted nature.
This movement is marked by a theology of suffering that runs at odds with the prevalent prosperity gospel preached in more privileged evangelical circles. The theology developed in the NWDC is one of kenosis and incarnation. Jesus is seen as identifying with those who are oppressed, becoming dispossessed of his privilege and being victim of much of the injustices that detainees suffer. Jesus is the one who walks with them in their tribulation; the one who meets them in their darkest hour.
Sara, a woman in detention with a history of childhood sexual abuse and who had been trafficked from Mexico into the US within the context of an abusive intimate relationship, told me about what she saw as an angelic visitation at a moment of high distress. A guard was making fun of her outside her cell shaming her using Sara’s traumatic history. Sara described how she felt Jesus’ hand patting her back as she wept on the floor unconsolably, “‘It’s ok,’ he said, ‘It’s ok.’”
According to the detainees, it is the very dispossession they experience that opens space for God to act. Pastor Rebecca was detained for over one year while applying to asylum. She had escaped an abusive husband in El Salvador and had become a pastor in Texas. While trying to apply to asylum she was detained. After 8 months, I asked Rebecca what was her experience of detention like. She replied, “All my life I had wanted to disciple women, and I get to do that here.” Now that she has been released, she wants to go back to the NWDC to continue ministering women.
Being detained is difficult. The conditions at the NWDC are dehumanizing, detainees are confined to endless days of social isolation and boredom and constantly exposed to abuse of power. A month ago, some detainees decided to start a hunger strike to draw attention from the president to their plea. They were quickly placed in solitary confinement. One of the women who participated in the hunger strike came back to her cell filled with bruises and blisters in her feet that did not allow her to walk. When asked what had happened all she said was, “God was with me; He saved me. God was with me.”
The stories of these women embody the space of encounter with the forsaken Christ; the ‘God with us’ in our suffering, in our oppression.
The Christ who becomes our witness and carries us as we wait for liberation.