USA: Accompanying Detainees during COVID-19

01 April 2020|Richard Sotelo, S.J., Director, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Detention Chaplaincy Program

Fr. Richard Sotelo, S.J. reflects on JRS Detention Chaplaincy Project as it continues to adapt and accompany displaced people during the global COVID-19 Pandemic.

Everyone is concerned and some possibly consumed by the phenomenon of COVID-19. For those of us who work in direct contact with detainees in ICE custody, it is not a time of introspection, that will come later, but rather it is a time of of accompaniment, action, presence.

Each ICE facility is responding in its own way to the ever-evolving realities. There is no one size fits all response. At the minimum religious service volunteers – those who help JRS to provide pastoral and religious services to five US federal detention centers located in Florida, Texas, Arizona and New York – are not permitted to enter beyond the “hard line” (into the living area of the detainees). Their absence alone places an added burden on the JRS chaplaincy staff. It is neither possible nor desirable for our personnel to provide religious services for those of other faith communities. At some centers detainee lead services continue while at others they have been cancelled. At some facilities services religious services are being presented via streaming. Planning continues for the celebration of Passover, Holy Week, and Ramadan. None will be like those of earlier years.

The JRS/USA National Detention Project team, who like you, have spouses, children, other family members and communities, are meeting the challenges. In conjunction with local facility management each respective Office of the Chaplain has decreased their total number of work hours per day but have increased the number of days they are present in their respective facility to six. They are encouraged to take walkabouts and be a physical presence. This is what is at the heart of accompaniment.

On August 6, 1945, at 08:15 a.m., the date and time of the atomic bombing, JRS Founder and then Jesuit living in Hiroshima, Pedro Arrupe S.J. records in his diary that he and a fellow priest, “…fell on our knees and prayed for guidance, as we were destitute of all human help.” The temptation during a time of crisis is paralysis. Once he arose from his knees, he was a person on mission. He went forth, ministered, alleviated suffering, transformed the novitiate chapel into a field hospital. These were acts that witnessed to the reality that a life of faith cannot be separated from lives that live, love, and walk in communion with the other.

The temptation during a time of crisis is paralysis. Once he arose from his knees, he was a person on mission. He went forth, ministered, alleviated suffering, transformed the novitiate chapel into a field hospital. These were acts that witnessed to the reality that a life of faith cannot be separated from lives that live, love, and walk in communion with the other.

These experiences underlaid the establishment of JRS in 1980, during another humanitarian crisis. In some small way we carry on his response during the time of COVID-19. Each of us, in our own way, continues his lasting universal response in faith, hope, and love. Each member of our field staff endeavors to swim in this vein of generosity and openness–to once again respond to the continuing face of human suffering and tragedy in our midst, in this time, in our world.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers for ourselves, the detainees, and the staff.

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