Since March 2020 there is a solitary pound coin, one of the old pound coins, on a bookshelf in my room. It sits on a JRS prayer card and is a constant reminder of all those who are detained in immigration centres as this is the coin I use for the locker at the reception area in Harmondsworth Detention Centre. Bags, books, money, one’s phone, even the bottle of water go into the locker; you bring just yourself, a few tissues and necessary papers when you go to visit.
Every person who approaches our JRS table in the Welfare Office comes with the hope that we can do something for them to shorten their stay in detention. Sometimes we can offer practical help like explaining a Home Office document in simple terms, but unfortunately it is not in our power to offer a quick way out of detention. Instead, we listen, we try to strengthen hope, we accompany.
Each week I listen intently to stories expressed in broken English, listening in the silences, trying to understand the body language. I have heard stories that anger me, sadden me, and yet encourage me. I get angry at a system that doesn’t treat people fairly, at a world that sells arms to countries resulting in wars that cause people to flee their homeland, even angry at God who has yet to convert the Home Office! But mostly I am saddened by the stories of suffering, of loss, of powerlessness. I remember the man who cried because there was nobody in the detention centre who spoke his language, or the bewildered young man threatened with deportation to a country he was born in but hadn’t lived in since he was a child, or those with medical conditions aggravated by the stress of detention. I listen, pray as I hand over a tissue, try to show that I care, and say something that might lift the person’s spirits.
There are so many ‘Good Friday’ moments but there are ‘Easter Sunday’ Resurrection moments too as when the encounter ends with a smile, the conversation is easier, or a detainee shares news that his lawyer is finally helping him. I am in admiration of the human spirit that tries to overcome adversity and hardship, and the kindness one sees among the detainees like the day a young Chinese man with very little English brought along a newly arrived man from Eastern Europe to us and simply said, ‘You help’.
Each week I leave the detention centre with my head full of pictures and sounds: long corridors, doors being locked and opened, men from all over the world, the faces of those I have met that day in the Welfare Office, the stories I have heard. I become more aware of my powerlessness and yet remember the words of the prophet Micah: ‘This is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8) There is much to pray about.
As my JRS prayer card says: ‘Lord Jesus, give us courage to accompany others, for in walking at their side we find you there present with us.’ And I pray too that soon again I can ‘act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly’ not only with my God, but with my supportive JRS Detention Visitors group, as we visit those in the detention centre.
Ursula is a volunteer with the Detention Outreach team at JRS UK, visiting those held in detention near Heathrow.
Join Ursula in accompanying those at Harmondsworth & Colnbrook through prayer.
Image credit: Joshua Hoehne, Unsplash