[Dioceses of Atlanta – Lumpkin, Georgia] “… I was in prison and you visited me.” Matthew 25:36
After driving 30 minutes south from Columbus, Bishop Rob Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta navigates nearly deserted streets lined with boarded up businesses then turns his white Ford onto a manicured lane and past a sign announcing Corrections Corporation of America – Stewart Detention Center.
The corporately-operated Immigration and Customs Enforcement center is one of the nation’s largest, housing more than 1,500 men being detained awaiting decisions on whether they will remain in the U.S. or be deported to the countries most fled to escape poverty and violence.
Bishop Wright visited Stewart Detention Center early last Sunday (9/7/2014) to keep a promise he made to one of the founders of El Refugio, which offers hospitality to the men of the Stewart ICE center and their families.
So, as some went to church and others slept, or ran or recovered from Saturday, Wright met El Refugio volunteer weekend leader Marie Marquardt and three young people from Emory University outside the squat, cream-colored stucco complex surrounded by high fences being circled by patrol vehicles.
“We were led behind razor wire and steel doors by a woman trying to live out Jesus’ words, ‘I was in prison and you visited me,’ ” Wright said. “Visitors are a welcome relief for these men. Detainees don’t have much to do there; up at 5 a.m., some TV, some exercise, lots of wondering, lots of prayer.”
After surrendering cellphones, wallets and anything capable of being used to record their conversations, Wright and the other pilgrims from Atlanta took off their shoes, belts and anything made of metal and passed through airport-style metal detectors.
Each was then ushered into a small booth separated from those they were visiting by glass the thickness of a thumb. As a guard closed the door behind each visitor, a man entered from the other side, his face a mixture of hope and fear. Picking up the phone linking him to the detainee, Wright smiled and began a gentle, low-key conversation.
“Through the glass and the interpreter I saw a young man brought to tears by one short sentence from me,” Wright said: “I want you to know people are thinking about you and praying for you.”
Marquardt, who with other volunteers coordinates everything from messages to making sure the right-size clothes are in the proper backpacks, said while El Refugio needs help providing food for visiting families and departure clothing for the men, the most important need among the detainees is for outside human contact.
“The men often comment how much they appreciate the company of others,” she told Bishop Wright. “Thank you for making time to meet these men.”
For Wright, who has made ministry to immigrants, children, prisoners and soldiers his priorities, his commitment to ongoing person-to-person contact is essential.
“ To ‘respect the dignity of every human being’ that day was as simple as a visit, as simple as listening to someone talk, as simple as reminding someone that life may be hard, but you are not alone,” he said after leaving the detention center. “Through glass and my interpreter I was privileged to see again Jesus at work, and the way forward for His church.”
Based in a two-bedroom, shotgun cottage near the prison, the all-volunteer-run El Refugio provides a place to stay overnight and meals for families from throughout the Southeast visiting a husband, father, brother or son.
The El Refugio volunteers also schedule mostly church groups for weekend visits, relay messages for the detainees and their families and make sure that anyone leaving Stewart has clean clothes and properly fitting shoes. It’s a modest ministry, but one that provides a vital service for those of meager means.
— Don Plummer coordinates media and community relations for the Diocese of Atlanta. He is a member of St. Teresa’s, Acworth, Georgia.