On Sunday of General Convention, the Convention invited us to step out into the world on issues of injustice. The Bishops gathered to protest against gun violence in the morning. At midday, we were all invited not to a protest, but a prayer service – a service of solidarity with our sisters seeking asylum in this country. I was a bit conflicted about the prayer service. My parishioners have been trying to reconcile their sense of the injustice of families being torn apart at our borders, but with divergent opinions about how immigration and asylum should work in the United States. I certainly have my opinions about the matter, but I always try to honor the diversity of our community.
Ultimately, I decided that we can always stand to pray. And so, with a friend and her one-year old daughter, we drove to the Hutto Detention Center for a prayer service. The Hutto Detention Center was once a prison in Texas. It is run by a privately-held, for-profit corporation, and hosts women – some of whom have been separated from their children, but all of whom are awaiting help from lawyers as they process asylum petitions. The day was sweltering hot, and we were in a field by the Center. Around 1,200 Episcopalians had gathered, with a line of buses surrounding us that had brought many from Austin. The former identity as a prison was obvious – small, skinny windows, stark, cold walls, high, barbed fences. Songs were spontaneous at times: We Shall Overcome, Amazing Grace, This Little Light of Mine. There were spoken prayers, and impassioned pleas for justice.
I found myself staring out at the building, wondering about the stories, fear, and suffering inside. I later learned that there have been high occurrences of sexual assault in the Detention Center. As the child we were with cooed and chattered, I wondered about the hole in my heart I would feel if my children were stripped from me – children I would protect at all costs. A portion of the crowd walked to the street to get closer and I felt myself drawn to their path. I wanted a connection with the women inside so deeply.
As we stopped at the entrance, chants began. “We see you, God loves you.” “You are not alone.” Songs followed. As tense, cold guards stood in front of us (for whom I was grateful and sympathetic toward), I found my grief increasing. There were rumors that the guards would have pulled the women away from the windows, so it was possible that they would not even hear us. But as we began to move back to the field, we saw them – women waving in windows, waiving towels behind tall windows. Later, we would find out from Grassroots Leadership that, “A woman called from Hutto after today’s prayer and told us they were glued to the windows until the last bus left the detention center. Women inside were crying, saying they knew they weren’t alone after seeing so many people there.”
I know this is a complicated issue for many of us. But I have to tell you, prayer, relationship, and empathy would certainly get us a long way. Those are humans, fleeing violence, degradation, and persecution in their home countries, stuck behind cold walls, being persecuted in another country. And for that, we could all stand to do a lot more praying.