A Compassionate Revolution: Seminarians Offer a Ministry of Presence to Detained Immigrants

By Jessica Espinoza, MATS, middler

In 2010, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary began partnering with Texas Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families, two Austin-based groups whose mission is an inspiration— to stop the detention of undocumented immigrants, as well as nurture current detainees in their exile. In light of the latter, the Hutto Visitation Program was formed.

Visitors do not come with legal counsel or monetary advice. They come with something much rarer: solidarity and friendship. Through this program, students, visitors, and activists spend time with women at the T.  Don Hutto Residential Center, talking, listening to stories, and offering comfort.

Martha Lynn Coon, Austin Seminary's admissions coordinator, is one of the chief facilitators of the project. "My husband and I wanted to visit a detainee over Christmas soon after we moved here, but I wasn't able to find a way 'in,' as it were," she said. "I'd begun working at the Seminary and thought that this would be an awesome ministry opportunity for interested students." 

As the community gained interest, the project began to sprout wings. Bart Smith (MDiv'12) forged a partnership between the Seminary and Texas Grassroots Leadership, and students began participating in regular visits.

There is a profound sense of the spiritual dimensions of their ministry for many of the students who take part in the program. Ruth Elswood (MDiv, middler), who worked with migrant farming families prior to coming to seminary, has witnessed firsthand the effects detention can have on immigrants and their loved ones.

"We talk about bringing a ministry of presence to these women," Ruth said. "I take very seriously what Christ asked us to do, to visit the sick, those who are imprisoned, and that's why we must do this kind of work."

Nearly five hundred adult women are currently detained in this facility. Some have lived there for years.

"It's always a challenge to remain positive and to help the women that we're visiting," Ruth said. "Their stories are so difficult, and the outlook for quite many of them is just so bleak. I'd heard recently of a woman who's been there 22 months. These women are struggling to keep some hope and some faith."

The joy of this program comes from this sharing of hope and sorrow, in which people vividly recognize the humanity in one another.  Martha Lynn was particularly struck by the sense of solidarity she witnessed among the women, and realized "what a powerful conduit that conversation can be for sharing hopes, concerns, longing, and memory." She speaks of the experience as being a mutual reflection for both the visitor and the woman who was detained.

"I found that so many of the women were really reflecting on their past during their time at the detention center, perhaps as a result of their deep sense of isolation," Martha Lynn said. "These reflections often made their way into the conversations. It was a way of remembering for them, and sharing for us."

For most visitors, the most difficult part comes at the end of the visit, when they collect their things and return to a world so utterly different from that of the women they serve. They leave with a new appreciation of what it means to reach out in friendship, while at the same time painfully conscious of their own ease and freedom.

"I sometimes feel like I should be doing more," Ruth said, "but I have to continually remind myself what it means to these women when we visit them, just letting them know that someone remembers who they are."

Most people who have visited the T.  Don Hutto Residential Center leave with one question, "Now that I've seen what I have seen, how can I help?" The practice of detention for recently arrived immigrants is not common knowledge, and because of this, few ministries are available to assist those being detained.

"Since the detainees are part of a silent population in many ways, they often are not included in many denominations' mainstream ministry focus," Martha Lynn said. "They have very few advocates, and many Americans are still unaware of the existence of these detention centers, even though they are growing in number every year."  

In spite of these obstacles, visitors are motivated to continue the fledgling ministry by a profound need to express Christ's concern for all humanity.

"Immigrating to the US in these times is a perilous experience," Martha Lynn said. "I think a primary ethical issue is to ensure that we extend our deep sense of hospitality as Christians to those in need. This may be someone in need of a meal, in need of a visitor, in need of an advocate, or in need of a little grace as they navigate a very complicated, expensive, and often hostile immigration and naturalization service."

Indeed, anyone who has participated in a visit will feel the effects of this holy hospitality.  People who encounter and serve these women come away with an inspired hope, born of the Christian message of solidarity, compassion, and love which it is impossible to lock away.