“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” ~Matthew 25:31-46
I have always gravitated to certain parts of this passage from Matthew 25 more than others. It has always felt easier to offer food or clothing, or at least the resources to purchase those things, than to care for the sick or visit those in prison. I figured other people are more skilled in those areas, so I would leave that work to them. But then I moved to Tucson, Arizona and was invited to visit immigrants in a detention center just up the road. So three years ago on a hot, dusty June morning, I arrived at Eloy Detention Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, privately owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America/CoreCivic.
After being buzzed through two layers of chain-link fence covered with barbed wire and passing through the metal detector and two more security doors, I entered the stark, cold visitation room. Individuals in jumpsuits were slowly being brought in and directed to different parts of the room. Visitors would sit on one side of the rows of hard mini-couches, and those being detained, on the other side. Then we would begin to talk.
My training and experience as a pastor helped me to have some clue as to how to start these conversations, but it still felt awkward. I knew very little about how folks wound up there, and how they survived the isolation they began to describe. I did not yet know that many of the people I would visit over the next few years were asylum seekers, fleeing war-torn countries, often with their babies on their backs, desperately in need of safety and security. I did not know they could get stuck in that place for months or even years while they fought their cases. There was so much I didn’t know that first day.
But I quickly learned that facts, while important, were not necessary for these encounters. An open heart and ears that really listened were, however. People began to trust me with their stories. I heard about moments and situations they had worked to overcome, and the things that kept them moving forward. I began to see beyond the barbed wire and jumpsuits, and to see these folks as friends and conversation partners, not as criminals – the labels the guards and ICE agents wanted me to latch onto. They wanted me to see them as less-than.
The women and men from around the world who have left their communities of origin and find themselves detained in Eloy Detention Center have taught me so much. They lean on one another. They encourage each other. They see themselves as connected. They listen when others cry at the thought of surviving one more day in a place where the isolation is designed to break them. Because in this place, idleness is not discouraged, but rather imposed. Programmed activities are few. Craft supplies are rationed. The optional jobs on offer pay only $1 per day. But faint hearts are strengthened through the support of others. Hope can be restored. Creativity emerges. Intricately-made swans come to life from just a few strips of paper. Strong purses are woven with colorful checkered patterns. Food items from the commissary are combined to recreate enchilada recipes that remind them of home. Praise songs float around the dusty outdoor recreation space and high into heaven. These acts of resilience remind me that the human spirit is stronger than our broken immigration system.
Matthew 25 emphasizes that when we visit someone in prison, we are visiting Jesus. And like all encounters with Jesus, we risk being transformed. I have been moved to tears by the stories I have heard, but I have also been pushed to put my compassion into action. I have been urged not to fall into the trap of deciding who is worthy of my care and attention, and who is not. Our current culture seems to suggest that if one is labeled “criminal” or “animal” or “undocumented” or anything else that begins to strip someone of their humanity, we are let off the hook, as if we no longer have to care about people who are kept behind lock and key and meters and meters of barbed wire.
But Matthew 25 tells us otherwise.