Our Session 2 campers have traveled far this week in terms of miles: 60 to Columbus, Georgia on Wednesday, 40 to Lumpkin, Georgia on Thursday, and 2.5 on the Chattahoochee River between Georgia and Alabama. But the milage put on our vans and rafts was nothing compared to the distances most of our campers traveled outside their comfort zones in those two days. Much was asked of them, and they bravely accepted the challenge. And in doing so, they learned a lot about themselves and others, experienced the thrill of adventure, and brought joy to those trapped in a lonely and scary place.
Wednesday’s mission was to explore the right to freedom of conscience. We are deeply grateful to New England War Tax Resistance (NEWTR) for a grant that helped fund this day. Campers were introduced to NEWTR and to the idea that by following their consciences, some people find themselves unwilling to pay the portion of their taxes which are spent to fund war and the military. Members of NEWTR instead divert those funds to support projects that promote peace. Campers had many thoughts and questions about the relationship between taxes and conscience, and a lively discussion developed.
With NEWTR’s example of conscience and conscientious objection in mind, the group set off for Columbus to meet another hero of conscience, Roy Bourgeois.
Roy shared his life experiences with the campers. As a solider in Vietnam, he observed a Catholic priest ministering to children who had been orphaned by the war, and that example led him to join the priesthood as well. After working in impoverished communities in Latin America, he began to question the U.S. military’s involvement in those countries. He told campers how his conscience led him to engage in nonviolent protest against the School of the Americas (now known as WHINSEC) at Fort Benning in Columbus. For acts of civil disobedience at Fort Benning and elsewhere, Roy has served several prison sentences, and yet is content that his actions were right and just. Roy’s conscience has also led him to be a vocal advocate for the ordination of women as Catholic priests, a stance that led to his excommunication from the priesthood. His example of courage and strength of conscience is one that campers will not soon forget.
A different kind of courage was needed for the next adventure. After saying goodbye to Roy and enjoying a picnic lunch at a Columbus park, campers embarked on a whitewater rafting trip. The idea of getting into an inflatable raft and taking off down the Chattahoochee was definitely not within the comfort zone of several campers. But with support from their fellow campers and with true bravery and determination, every person in the end chose to participate, and had a great time! We’re so proud of those who overcame their fears and rose to the challenge!
The challenges didn’t let up on Thursday, when campers were asked to consider the right to asylum and the hardships faced by people trying to claim that right in the U.S. Vans were again packed, and campers headed to Lumpkin, Georgia, home to El Refugio and Stewart Detention Center. El Refugio is a hospitality house a couple miles from the detention center, where family members of incarcerated men are offered welcome. Campers were greeted by Loyda Paz, who explained the mission of El Refugio and also prepared the campers who wanted to visit with men detained at Stewart.
With Roy’s example of courage fresh in their minds, most of the campers again chose to take a huge step outside their comfort zone, pass through the gates and under razor wire and security cameras, and enter one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the country.
After two hours in the waiting room, the first group of campers was escorted through security and into the visitation area. There, through plexiglass windows and over phones, they met men from Cameroon, Belize, the Dominican Republic, India, and Sierra Leone. Many of these men are seeking asylum in the United States and are incarcerated as they await the court hearings that will decide their fate. During their visits with Peacebuilders campers, they got to forget for a little while their uncertain futures and their profoundly difficult present situations. Campers offered them friendship, jokes, stories, listening ears, and something that many of the men had not experienced in quite a while: dignity, gratitude, and honor.
Back at the El Refugio house, another group of campers was hard at work offering another act of service. Under the direction of Juan Ramirez, they stained the huge new deck that will provide El Refugio’s guests a lovely place to relax and unwind after visits to the detention center. Under the hot July sun, this work was indeed a labor of love!
The visits and the work at El Refugio stretched late into the afternoon. By the time campers were back in their familiar surroundings at Koinonia, their hearts and minds had traveled far beyond the confines of comfort, expanding their appreciation for their own capabilities. These brave, thoughtful, kind, and strong young people offer hope for the future, and we couldn’t be prouder of them!