A guard opens the door to the nondescript room and about 40 men file in. Most are wearing blue jumpsuits; some wear orange. Their expressions vary widely, but nearly all offer warm greetings as they enter. Several languages are spoken among them.
It was a Wednesday evening at the Elizabeth (N.J.) Detention Center, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contract facility operated by CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America). The detained men had gathered for a worship service that staff from the ELCA and its partners had also been invited to attend. For many of us, it was a jarring experience. For Ramón Collazo, it was just another weeknight.
Collazo, pastor and mission developer of Santa Isabel Lutheran Church in Elizabeth, has for years organized and led a weekly prayer service with those detained at the center. He had convened our group last summer—including ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Episcopal Diocese of Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith—because the detainees he serves often ask for their stories to be told.
“It is an important ministry of the ELCA that is not known,” Collazo said. “It is important to see their faces, hear their voices, and to have the direct experience, at least for a while, of their surroundings.”
Our group included representatives from the churchwide organization, ELCA Advocacy, the New Jersey Synod, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and Seafarers International House, which sponsors monthly visits to the center and provides housing and resources for some detainees upon their release.
“It is an important ministry of the ELCA that is not known. It is important to see their faces, hear their voices, and to have the direct experience, at least for a while, of their surroundings.” — Ramón Collazo
The weekly services that Collazo and others from Santa Isabel lead at the center rotate between times of worship, prayer and Bible study, and are held separately for male and female detainees. Santa Isabel also holds immigration forums, citizenship application drives and health clinics that Collazo said are strongly connected to its detention ministry. “The worship there is an extension of this church,” he said. “We do everything we do in a church except take the offering.”
The bilingual service we attended included readings, messages from Eaton and Beckwith, and a time of extended prayer and individual blessings, offered mainly by the two bishops to the men who had lined up to receive them.
Most of the men were from West African, Latin American and Asian countries. Many described the overwhelming violence in their homelands that had caused them to flee and that still threatens the lives of their families there. Tears were shed. Concerns were shared. Hugs were exchanged. And, over and over, gratitude was expressed. Our presence—the presence of the church—there mattered deeply, many expressed.
Collazo hopes that after people meet with detainees for the first time, they will be moved to continue in the ministry. “The people in detention also need to see and hear that not only the local pastor is praying and supporting them but that the whole church is also with them,” he said.