Reflection: In Prison

by | Jul 1, 2019

“I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Matthew 25:36

We all have little bytes of data that make up our particular identity in this world.  I remember when I was in seminary, and we held an exercise in diversity during orientation.  We were to step forward if we identified with various experiences.  One experience that stuck with me was “I or someone in my family have been incarcerated.” 

Of course I let it go by.  I come from a family of ministers and schoolteachers; hardly the jailbird types!  But then it occurred to me that my mother and many family members were incarcerated in World War II internment camps; in fact one cousin was born in the camp.  I was paralyzed by the dilemma—I can’t step forward as if my family were imprisoned, as if one of my relatives had run aground of the law.  They hadn’t done anything wrong!  But that’s what has happened to so many people of color; they are accused of wrongdoing and imprisoned, often without any proof but for the color of their skin.

Like most people, I refer to the camps that imprisoned 120,000 Japanese-Americans, most of whom were citizens (like my mother, who had never even stepped foot out of the US), as “internment camps.”  But some people call them concentration camps, a term defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard”—though they point out that the term has often been used to refer to Nazi death camps, which has caused much sensitivity about the use of the term.  You probably have heard that this term has been used most recently to describe the detention centers holding asylum seekers from Central America.

As it turns out, there are some similarities.  Last Thursday night, I attended an event in Little Tokyo, protesting the use of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as a detention center for migrant children from Central America.  Fort Sill is still an active Army post, first staked out in 1869.  But it has also been used for detention.  In 1894, Geronimo and 341 other Apache were kept at Fort Sill as prisoners of war; in fact, Geronimo died there in 1909.  During World War II, 700 Japanese-American immigrants (we call them issei, or first generation) were held there.  Three of the issei died at Fort Sill, including Kanesaburo Oshima.  He was taken to Fort Sill from Hawai`i.  His wife and eleven children were left at home, and he suffered a mental breakdown.  Unarmed, he attempted to climb the barbed wire fence, and was shot dead by a guard.

And now, there is a plan to detain as many as 5,000 children at Fort Sill.

Japanese-Americans have always sworn “never again” to this kind of mass incarceration—not only for Japanese-Americans, but any people detained without trial.  (Of course, even if there was a trial, we ordinarily do not hold children accountable for the actions of adults caring for them.)  So we feel called to speak up whenever we see others being persecuted for being a member of an ethnic or religious group deemed undesirable. 

I have been impressed with the strong positive response to Kristi Van Nostran’s ministry as Immigrant Accompaniment Organizer.  My guess is that many of us have been wondering how to help with this crisis.  Kristi has many different ways you or your church can help, so I encourage you to contact her.  You can scroll down for a flyer on her work.  And Presbyterian News Service wrote an article on our ministry, which is on-line here.

There is also a global movement to show our concern about immigrants being detained.  It is called Lights for Liberty, and the event will be held on Friday, July 12, at 7:30 pm in many locations.  Click here for a current list (note that CA for California comes after Canada).  Originally the vigils were planned for detention centers, so a major site will be at the detention center in downtown Los Angeles, at 535 Alameda.  But now there will be vigils wherever a group chooses to organize one.

Many of us have experienced personally, or in our families, trauma that in God’s grace leads to compassion for others who suffer.  If nothing else, if we want to show love for Jesus, he tells us how to show that love in Matthew 25.  As we hear renewed threats of deportation raids, as we hear horror stories of children dying in custody of the US government, as we learn that in desperation, ICE has at times released detainees by simply dumping them without anything in a strange city, there is much need for us to pray—with our hearts, with our faith, and with our hands and feet. 

So I ask for your prayers, and your compassion that leads to action, that includes visiting and welcoming the stranger, in prison or in our community.  I also ask your prayers for Al Lorenz and the people of Grace Presbyterian Church in Highland Park, who held their final worship service yesterday.  Even in these times of uncertainty, may our siblings in San Gabriel Presbytery—as well as God’s children fleeing violence and suffering—be filled and comforted by the Holy Spirit.  May all people feel the loving presence of Jesus Christ, that their souls be free, even if they are imprisoned by immigration, criminal action, or any other way that we are too often bound by the brokenness of ourselves, or of this world.

In prayer,