Friday, February 1, 2013

Courage, Migrant Brothers

This morning I had the great privilege to stand in vigil and then pray together with men whom my country is deporting.

Every Friday for about 5 years, a dedicated group of peacemakers, has gathered at 7:15 AM in front of Broadview Detention Center near Chicago. Broadview is a detention center run by the Chicago office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It holds detainees from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Kentucky.  At any given time, about 1,000 people are there whom ICE processes after a raid or individual pick-up. ICE then deports many of those people.

I could use this post to talk about how our country desperately needs immigration reform.  Thankfully, that topic is back in the political agenda.  While I fervently believe that comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue, I want to focus instead on the experience of the morning.

Our CPT trainee group and trainers arrived at Broadview a few minutes before 7:00.  Since the temperature was below zero, we stayed in the car until the vigil was about to start.  When we did get out of the car, hand warmers stuffed in gloves, hats, hoods, and scarves layered on for warmth, we huddled with about 40 others in front of the center.

Drawing from both Jewish and Christian traditions, we prayed for our migrant brothers and sisters and read the names of those we knew; we prayed for their families; we prayed for more just immigration laws.  Finally we celebrated small successes - the release on one man slated for deportation (he was present), a law that's just been passed in Illinois allowing undocumented migrants to get a driver's license, the (re)introduction of comprehensive immigration reform.  We ended the vigil singing "We Shall Overcome."

When we finished, some of us went to a diner for a hearty breakfast.  We had not finished our work at Broadview.  The Friday vigil includes getting on buses with deportees and praying with them.  Today it was scheduled to happen around 9:00.

Broadview allows three people to go on the buses.  A few days ago, our trainee group discussed the action and I was one of the three fortunate people who'd go on the buses. The three of us made a plan for speaking: an introduction, an invitation to name people to hold in prayer, the Lord's prayer together, and a final blessing.  Two of us spoke Spanish, the third did not.  We weren't sure if there would be anyone needing us to speak in English, but wanted each of us to have a chance to speak, and planned accordingly.  We tried to prepare ourselves for any scenario, including the possibility of angry deportees.  Our trainers had also warned us that the bus would be dark, the deportees would be shackled, and that we'd have to speak loudly through a small hole in the plexiglass/metal grate panel that would separate us from the deportees and prevent us from seeing most of them.

As it turned out, the bus had broken down, so instead we prayed standing at the door of vans, 5 total.  They held men from Mexico (3 vans), Honduras (1 van), Guatemala and El Salvador (1 van).  We were close to them.  We saw the faces at least of the men near us and when there wasn't a separation grate between the front and back of the van, we saw all their faces. We could have touched those near the door. When I looked at their faces, they were familiar.  They were the faces I saw when I lived in Guatemala and traveled in Central America.  They were the faces of so many friends.  They were the face of my brother-in-law.

When we first entered the building where we'd pray, "our" guard (who directed us where and when to go) walked us through the garage where the vans would park, up a ramp, and into a small kitchen to wait for the other guards to herd the men into the vans.  From the kitchen, we heard the men pass us going down the ramp, the sound of metal clanking as they shuffled their shackled ankles towards the van. I regretted eating a large breakfast, as my stomach threw it around each time we waited in the kitchen and a new group went by.

When our guard ushered us from the kitchen  to approach the first van, another guard urged us to be fast, so we modified our pre-arranged plan.  Only the two of us who speak Spanish addressed the men.  We introduced our third accompanier, but he did not speak. The other Spanish-speaker introduced who we were and why we were there: to pray with them before they set off on their journey.  I then invited them to name anyone, maybe themselves, maybe friends or family, who needed our prayers.  The responses we'd received were nothing but generous, welcoming, and thankful.  The men told us their names and also offered up their wives, children, mothers, some in the U.S., some in their home countries, and other detainees to pray for.  One man told us we needed to change the broken immigration system.  We assured him we were both praying and working for it.  Then together in Spanish, we prayed the Our Father.  As I made the sign of the cross before praying, I saw that shackles prevented the men from doing the same.  We offered a final blessing, the van doors closed, and back to the kitchen we went.

Walking away from the vans, my eyes stung as they held back tears.  My throat tightened. My heart ached and still aches imagining the journey each man has already been through and the one he has ahead of him.  From the kitchen, we heard the garage door open.  We heard the rest of our trainee/trainer group outside, singing, "Courage, migrant brother,/ you do not walk alone/ we will walk with you/ and sing your spirits home." They sang continuously until all vans were outside.  They had translated the words, so they could sing in Spanish.  We joined them after the fifth van left the building.  When we exited, all the vans were stopped in the street.  Our group sang together until the vans finally drove off and out of sight, on their way to O'Hare.

De-briefing the vigil and prayers afterwards, someone recalled a memory of being in jail and how seeing non-uniformed, non-weaponed people had made such an impact, was such a welcome and comforting sight.  The same person noted that the faces of the men in the van registered the same kind of relief and gratitude.

"It makes a difference.  Praying with them is not a small thing. It is a big thing."

It is a big thing for me, too.  It was a gift, a privilege, an honor to speak and pray with the men - Henry, Alfonso, Jose, and so many more - even briefly.  May God keep them safe.  May God bless their families.  May God open our hearts to all people, regardless of their origin.