After three days of living and working together, Peacebuilders’ 2017 staff is coalescing into a strong team. Our staff training has included a storytelling workshop, run-throughs of planned activities, reviews of camper profiles, creation of posters and signs, and lots of productive and provocative conversation, laced with plenty of laughter. We come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, but are fast becoming friends as well as team members.
Later this month, our staff will be accompanying campers who choose to visit men who are detained at Stewart Detention Center, one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the U.S. To be better prepared support the campers on those visits, today we went to the detention center to meet detained men and learn their stories. Five counselors visited men from five different countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Cameroon, India, and Nigeria. The experience was powerful. Our counselors were inspired by the faith they saw evidenced, heartbroken by the inhumanity of the facility, angered by the injustice of a system that incarcerates those who come to our country seeking safety, and empowered to give voice to the stories that need to be told.
Unfortunately, Medinah, one of our counselors-in-training, was not able to visit with a detained man as planned. After a wait of nearly an hour, our group started the process of clearing security before proceeding on to the visitation area. Medinah was told at that point that she would need to remove her head covering before walking through the metal detector. She replied that she could not do that, not in a room full of people. She suggested that the guard could do a pat-down instead, as is done in airports. She was asked to take a seat and wait for a supervisor; I joined her in the wait. Another hour passed before the supervisor appeared. During that time, we watched family members arrive, bearing bags of clothing so that their loved ones will have something decent to wear when they are deported. We overheard children asking their mamas, “When do we see Papi?” We saw discouraged visitors emerge from their visits and head back to homes where the absence of the breadwinner is felt every single minute.
Finally, the supervisor appeared, dressed casually in a t-shirt that on the back said, “Tough with the Cuffs.” She curtly repeated what the guard had told us, that the institution’s policy clearly states that all head scarves and other coverings had to be removed when clearing security. When we inquired what other Muslim women who cover their heads do in this case, we were told that they choose to “comply.” And we were given no other options. Medinah chose not to “comply,” and the man we had hoped to visit was told that we would not be seeing him after all.
As we prepare to lead 60 campers in the next three weeks to think about what it means to honor human rights, we could not help but consider this denial of the request to visit this man, who himself is pleading for his right to asylum, in the context of human rights. What meaning does the right to freedom of religion have for a Muslim woman if she must lay aside her faith’s teachings about covering her head in order to visit her detained husband or son? How does the responsibility to enforce an unjust policy impact the guard and her supervisor? How do those of us who happen not to cover our heads stand in solidarity with both Muslim (or Jewish, or Catholic, or Orthodox Christian, or Amish) visitors who do cover, and the men who crave visits? We had much food for thought as we drove back to Koinonia Farm to resume the rest of the day of training and camp preparation.
The evening held a special treat for us, a visit to nearby Plains for an early Independence Day celebration. The band played, the funnel cakes fried, and the children in their red, white, and blue star-spangled t-shirts played joyfully in the grass as we settled down next to the railroad tracks to wait for the fireworks to begin. The night was clear and beautiful after days of rain, and our group’s connection and camaraderie was strong after our days of work together. Soon we were all enjoying a lovely fireworks display, content in being together, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over each explosion of color. Too quickly, the show was over, and as the smoke and echoes cleared, we could hear the music that was cranking up over in the bandstand. “Proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free . . . “ And my thoughts wandered down the road in front of me, heading west from our happy and peaceful group, past Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home in Archery, past the small towns of Preston and Richland, back to Lumpkin, back to Stewart Detention Center, where men who long to be proud to be Americans will be denied that privilege, and where women with head coverings wonder just how free they are.
Building relationships across lines of diversity. Working purposefully together to accomplish a significant task. Engaging in meaningful conversation about important issues. Sharing spontaneous laughter with new friends. Serving others whose rights are not honored. Engaging in the joyous parts of small-town community. Moving beyond our comfort zones. Looking at situations through the eyes of another, and allowing ourselves to be impacted by what we see through those eyes. This day has been about much of what makes Peacebuilders Camp a transformative experience not only for young campers, but for staff as well. It’s safe to say that Peacebuilders 2017 is off to a very good start.