In the 1989 drama Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella hears a quiet voice tell him, “Build it, and they will come.” Obedient, he builds a baseball field in a remote cornfield that is beautiful and redemptive.
Today, hidden away in the hunting preserves of rural Georgia, is another field, not a field of dreams but a prison of nightmares — Corrections Corporation of America’s Stewart Detention Center.
Imagine CCA executives hearing a voice tell them, “Build it, and they will come.” Who will come? In this era of mass incarceration of mostly poor people of color, it matters less who comes than that “they” are profitable.
Construction and failed negotiations went on for years. In 2004, with a medium security prison complete, CCA hired a warden for its empty facility. In 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to convert Stewart into one of the nation’s largest immigration detention centers, now holding about 1,750 detainees.
Immediately, hunger strikes began. Detainees denounced the conditions. Two immigrants died. The list of alleged human rights and detention standards violations grew. The advocacy group Detention Watch Network calls Stewart one of the nation’s 10 worst immigration detention facilities.
“People will come,” the character Terrence Mann says in Field of Dreams, but what Mann says next is chilling when applied to those facing family separation via detention and deportation: “They’ll come . . . for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.”
Where the children of God suffer and are held captive to systems of oppression, there the church must be at its gates.
In 2007, Alterna, an Anabaptist community I belong to, began to mobilize in solidarity with those confined at Stewart. A vigil was held outside in collaboration with the Christian community Koinonia Farm and Schools for Conversion, a new monastic ministry. That day about 30 of us, mostly evangelical and Mennonite, stood in prayerful protest outside the new detention center.
In November we held our eighth annual #ShutDownStewart rally, and about 1,000 people from across the U.S. converged on this place.
As detainees’ loved ones learned of our advocacy, they reached out to us. Through these relationships, a visitation and documentation ministry was launched. Three reports of allegations have been published. Hundreds of people from varied denominations — especially through JustFaith Ministries and Lutheran Services of Georgia — have experienced the desperation and the resiliency of those denied their liberty and due process at Stewart.
The pinnacle of this faith-filled response of mercy and justice has been the founding of El Refugio, a hospitality house that serves detained immigrants, their families and friends. For four years, volunteers have joyfully operated a place of refuge. Free of charge, guests are received as Christ and offered a bed, a meal, a listening ear, an open heart and a warm embrace.
Whenever I despair, I remember a voice still calls out to the church today, saying, “Build it, and I will come.” Obedient, the church is building something beautiful and redemptive.
Anton Flores-Maisonet, his wife, Charlotte, and their two sons live in Georgia and are members of Alterna, a bilingual Anabaptist community devoted to faithful acts of hospitality, mercy and justice. He serves on Mennonite Church USA’s Interchurch Relations reference group.
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