There are many tasks to be completed as our staff gets ready for our three sessions of camp this month. Rooms must be assigned, menus planned, supplies organized, policies reviewed, and schedules coordinated. As the hours until camp are counting down, the small details to be taken care of are stacking up. We know though, that there is more to preparing ourselves for camp than checking things off an ever-expanding list of tasks. To be effective leaders, we can’t lose sight of the reason behind our work. So for several hours today, our preparation went off-site and outside comfort zones to give our counselors and CITs the chance to stretch themselves in a new direction and re-center themselves in their commitment to justice.
Because some of our 13- and 14-year old campers will be visiting men in immigrant detention, it was important that our staff learn what that experience entails. A 45-minute drive from the farm brought us to the town of Lumpkin, GA, home to Stewart Detention Center, one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the U.S. Our first stop was at El Refugio, a hospitality house one mile from the center, where we learned about the important work of welcome that goes on there every weekend. PJ Edwards, this weekend’s coordinator at El Refugio, shared with us names of detained men who have requested visits from volunteers, and shortly after, we found ourselves walking under coils of barbed wire and through the double gates at Stewart. A lot of paperwork and a brief wait later, we were escorted into the visitation area and were given the chance to hear the stories of five men who have been detained there for many months, waiting for a decision about their plea for asylum, or for a deportation that has already been ordered. Though our visits were conducted over telephones and through Plexiglass windows that separated us, we knew that we were breaking down walls of difference as we chatted with men from Central America, Africa, and Asia, who seek safety and opportunity in our country and who instead have found mistreatment and misunderstanding.
Counselor Elysee reflected that the man he visited commented on the poor quality of the food that he is served at Stewart, and how much he misses eating chicken, a simple pleasure that can enjoy only rarely now. CIT Julia, who visited a grandfather who has lived in the U.S. for 26 years, shared, “What hit me the most was the only thing he had done was to exist in a country he hadn’t been born in. He owned his own business here, and hired others. He built his whole life here, and had it taken away from him.” She now has a new response for those who claim that immigrants come to the U.S. and steal jobs from citizens; her new friend created jobs instead. Counselor Meh Sod commented, “I feel sad that people who try to build community and lead a peaceful life aren’t given the chance to live peacefully. At first I felt nervous about going to the detention center, but I’m so happy I went because I learned something new. People don’t know that there are places like this.”
Nothing drives changes in perception and attitude more effectively than face-to-face interactions with those who are impacted by injustice. All three sessions of camp this month will introduce campers to people whose stories they may have never before considered or tried to understand, whether they be detained immigrants, people with disabilities, migrant farm workers, those with mental illness, or a new friend from a different race, religion, or economic status. This is the real work of Peacebuilders Camp. And as we continue with the busy tasks that make the real work possible, the stories of the men we met today who are incarcerated just miles down the road, will inspire us to continue to break down walls that separate people.