School of Action Feature: Intersections with Immigrant Detainees

April 4, 2016

Every day, Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry students, alumni, faculty and staff live out what it means to be a “school of action,” in a variety of contexts.

Recently we had the opportunity to visit with currents students Julie Gunter and Maria Laughlin, both in the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies program. Both students have wrestled with how their learning and passion for pastoral theology intersects with our local communities’ immigrant populations and refugees. This past fall, Julie and Maria had the rare opportunity to tour the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma and visit with some of the people who are detained there. The detention center is a facility owned and operated by a for-profit private company called the GEO Group under contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is a branch of Homeland Security. Those detained at the center are awaiting civil trials regarding their immigration status.

Julie shared that she had felt drawn towards exploring and engaging in the issue of immigration in the United States for some time, but did not know where her skills and gifts could contribute. However, experiences began emerging that shifted Julie’s attention away from her initial hesitations. First, she took the class “Ministry in a Multicultural Context” taught by faculty member Dr. Mark Chung Hearn. Julie recalls that Dr. Hearn encouraged the class to reach out to people on the margins of our communities, and to explore how the structure of power can be seen as a system that is broken, but also a system that can be redeemed. And then they were asked “What power do you hold?” As a writer and frequent contributor to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), Julie realized that she held a unique power in her ability to share stories.

Next, in the late summer of 2015, Julie met Peggy Herman through her communications work with the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Office of Missions as a Catholic Campaign for Human Development intern. Peggy is an immigration lawyer (and SU Law School grad), who volunteers in a RV-based post-detention Welcome Center, a program of AID NW (Advocates for Immigrants Detained Northwest). Peggy, like Julie, does not speak Spanish; however, she has trained and oriented volunteers to provide services in both English and Spanish to people released from the detention center. This includes basics like food and clothing, and also more strategic assistance regarding housing, transportation and contacting family members. You can read a full account of the Welcome Center in Julie’s NCR article, here

Following conversations with Peggy, volunteers, and recently released detainees, Julie felt there were more stories that she needed to share. Specifically, stories related to the unique challenges that Catholic detainees and volunteers face when it comes to having or providing access to religious materials and services, like sacraments, within the detention facility. Julie’s request to visit the detention center, attend a Sunday service, and interview detainees was granted by ICE. In the meantime, Julie realized that she needed a photographer and asked her classmate, Maria, who serves as Director of Stewardship & Development at St. James Cathedral, if she would be willing to visually document the experience (Maria had previously supplied Julie with some of her own photographs for an article relating to the cathedral that Julie had published a few years before).  The two women quickly connected their shared passions, and Maria joined Julie in her trip to the detention center.

In the fall of 2015, Julie and Maria, accompanied by an interpreter, toured the detention center. Reflecting on the encounters, both women expressed amazement at the hope and resilience shared by those who are detained. Often detainees do not have a timeframe for their release, and some have been there several years. Julie and Maria’s visit focused on Catholic detainees and how spiritual growth and access to the Sacraments is a small, but invaluable gift as they await an unknown future. (Many people and resources are needed to continue this effort of support for detainees; you can read a more detailed account of the visit in Julie’s second NCR article, here.)

Maria took photos throughout the visit – these are the photos shown here and in the NCR articles written by Julie. Maria shared that the experience of visiting the facility was overwhelming and exhausting. The young men who were interviewed wore jumpsuits and ID badges, and could only see family through visiting areas separated by plexi-glass. Like many of us, Maria was used to taking photos of joyful moments; to capture images of people who were suffering was a new experience. “Their faces never brightened up,” Maria says, and she remains moved by the faces of the men and the sacredness of the experience. Since beginning the Master’s degree in Pastoral Studies, Maria feels that she has opened her mind to different ways of doing ministry. The ecumenism that she has experienced here has helped prepare her both personally and professionally to sit with people of different backgrounds and faiths. Maria shared, “I wish more people could experience these types of conversations, because ultimately it strengthens your sense of connection to your own faith.”

Similarly, Julie credits her embrace of ecumenism to Dr. Michael Trice, Assistant Dean of Ecumenical & Interreligious Dialogue, who encourages students to reach out to others with differing experiences and views in order to learn and grow from these encounters, and thereby sow seeds of greater understanding in the world. “Social Analysis,” a course taught by Dr. Jeanette Rodriguez, provided Julie a structure for doing research on these stories around the intersection of social systems and individual experiences, especially as she worked on her final story about the detention center which highlighted new developments within ICE to better serve the religious needs of the detainee population, here. In her final reflection on what inspired her to pursue the stories on the detention center, Julie mentions again the encouragement of Dr. Hearn to recognize the power that they hold:

“I came to the realization that my position as a writer enables me to enter into, and witness, certain experiences that are largely closed to the general public...when I step across a threshold into others' experiences, my hope is that I can become a conduit between people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to converse with, or learn from, one another. I am sensitive to the responsibility that comes with this type of engagement and encounter, yet I also am aware that words on a page are, by their nature, limited. Readers are an integral part of each story, too.”


Resources and more information:

School of Theology & Ministry Graduate Degree Programs

Advocates for Immigrants Detained Northwest (AID NW)

Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma

National Catholic Reporter (NCR) Stories: 

An additional NPR story featuring religious diversity at the Northwest Detention Center: With Religious Services, Immigrant Detainees Find 'Calmness'