AN EXPANDING MINISTRY — by John Webster
When the Presbyterian Immigrant Ministry (PIM) Steering Committee met on February 2, 2019, it was confronted with the challenges of an expanding ministry and the problems expansion posed. For most of the time since its inception in August 2011, PIM has served an average of 100-120 incarcerated immigrants per week—the equivalent of the attendance at worship of a good sized congregation. The average attendance in January 2019 has rapidly grown to about double that figure.
The reasons for this expansion are both clear and unclear. The number of incarcerated immigrants in the three prisons we visit has risen significantly. The prisons have recently become more deliberately supportive of our ministry than they used to be. They have found that Bible study produces a calmer atmosphere in the prison! But something is going on within our Bible study groups that draws people in. In the accounts that follow this one, what that “something” is is differently assessed, but clearly the motivations of the incarcerated immigrants are not the same as those of the prison authorities.
This expansion in the prisons located in Dartmouth and Plymouth MA has created two problems the only solution to which appears to be the creation of additional Bible study groups. On the one hand, the rooms designated for Bible study are now too small to accommodate everyone who wants to attend. On the other hand, the continuing problem of a “confusion of tongues” intensifies as the groups get larger and larger. Thus we now have separated groups using English from those using a combination of Spanish and Portuguese. This has improved communication within those groups and thus made ministry more effective, but it has also meant more visits and more expense for the Steering Committee.
As this ministry expands, as it must because the worst thing we can do is abandon these brothers and sister, so too must the support for it. In the remainder of this newsletter on can find the details of the expansion of this ministry. We also want to thank publicly those whose gifts have supported us since our last newsletter was published.
GOOD NEWS — by Paulo Ribeiro
The PIM ministry accomplishes the fulfillment of Christ’s call to His Church, for the transformation of lives. When we dedicate ourselves to ministering to the inmates, we feel privileged, since it is a worthy experience, compared to the pastoral ministry exercised within a congregation. There we find people deprived of their freedom who thirst for the Word of God. In this condition, they receive a Word of hope that leads them to reflect on their life experiences, and seek in the Lord God a new kind of freedom; that is the freedom in Christ.
Lately, I have observed a revival among the two groups in the Dartmouth prison for whom I minister. There are a growing number of people attending to our Bible studies. There is interaction and encouragement for reflection within the message of the Scriptures, with the purpose of its practical life application, seeking the transformation of their lives, by the power of the Holy Spirit. This experience of interaction not only with the Word of God and Holy Spirit but also with each other draws in more and more participants to the point where we have to form additional groups.
It is the feeling of God’s Love flowing among people, which leads the prison officers, to observe a less tense atmosphere in the prison environment, while people feel more lively and less oppressed, even though living without physical freedom, but enjoying the freedom of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives. For this reason, some prison officers appreciate our work.
The time we invest in this kind of ministry and its growth, not only in the number of participants (between 56 and 63 per week in January), but spiritually, brings us a feeling of gratitude to the Lord, when we see the joyful and motivated inmates waiting for our time together, to enjoy true communion in Christ, in prayer, and sharing the Word of God.
MORE GROUPS IN PLYMOUTH — by Alonso Dacunha
During the month of January I was asked to meet with the prison chaplain who wanted me to form a new Spanish and Portuguese Bible Study group for convicts. I was very happy to do this and accepted his invitation. I have also started an English language Bible study among immigrants from Africa. There are now five PIM Bible study groups so that everyone can have quality time. During the month of December attendance at Bible study did not exceed 20 per group. In January, however, we have had as many as 43 in one group and the total number of attendees now averages over 100 per week!
This increase in participation is due in part to the increase in the prison population because of the President’s policy. Also the behavior of the inmates in the unit where we have Bible studies has changed for the better. As a result the chaplaincy office wants a larger number of detainees to have access to Bible study. There has been a weekly prayer group on Cape Cod, praying for the ICE prisoners’ spiritual development and for the preparation of Bible studies. For the past few months these Bible studies have been sequential, book by book and chapter by chapter. Each student receives questions and tasks for the following week and those who complete an entire book of the Bible receive a certificate. These certificates serve as both a motivating force and a recognition of a spiritual victory. We also noticed that this homework for the week attracted others to the Bible studies and the heads of each unit realized that it made a difference in the behavior of the whole unit.
The Presbyterian Immigrant Ministry not only welcomes but needs gifts from congregations and individuals to keep its expanding ministry going. We simply cannot abandon incarcerated undocumented immigrants who are so publicly maligned, pursued and pressured to “get out of here and go back to where you belong”, whether in actual fact they “belong” there are not. They look to us both for friendship in a hostile environment and for the possibility of a new life grounded in the love of God for them made so manifest in Jesus Christ. For this reason we wish to thank publicly the following for their gifts of support to this ministry since our November newsletter was published.
First Presbyterian Church, Stamford;
First Presbyterian Church, New Haven;
Providence Presbyterian Church;
Greenwood Community Church, Presbyterian;
Contributions to the Presbyterian Immigrant Ministry should be made out to the Presbytery of Southern New England and designated for PIM. They should then be sent to the presbytery office at P.O, Box 388, Chester, CT 06412.
November 2018 Newsletter
What Women Talk About — by Katia DaCunha
When the women meet, we always start with a check-in. This is followed by worship and Bible study. We always finish with a moment for prayer requests and prayer. It is hard to invite people to come to a Bible study if we do not give them time to process what is going on in their lives. I have tried different scenarios in the Bible studies, as I have to be flexible, especially when there is a lot of inner turmoil in their lives. The reasons for such turmoil varies: someone was deported while their family remained in the USA, or someone is going to court to have their case decided, or someone in their family is sick, and so on. Last week (in October) one woman was very depressed. She has three kids, two little ones and a teenager. Her mother has been taking care of them, but had a heart attack and went to the hospital. So there was no one to take care of the little ones. Her oldest daughter was missing school while the grandmother was in the hospital and her husband was working three jobs to sustain the family and pay the lawyer. She has been imprisoned for two months and has already paid the lawyer $19,000.
Some time ago when the Border Patrol split up families, there were women in the jail who were experiencing similar traumas of family separation. Those were the hardest days I have experienced in my ministry to them. I remember getting there and the first thing I was asked for was to please help us pray for a particular separated child who is somewhere—and that is still happening each time I visit. Once when I visited one of the women had just suffered a miscarriage and it was devastating for all of them. So in times like these we would pray and comfort each other. God is amazing; we have been truly blessed by God’s grace and love at each step on the way! That is their most frequent comment after we have gathered, studied the Bible, sung and praised God together.
Ministry at the Bristol County Prison — by Paulo Ribeiro
On September 5th I unexpectedly suffered a heart attack, which by God’s Grace let me be still here. It happened while I was in my doctor’s office at Miriam Hospital in Providence. There was enough time to go straight into the emergency room. I was hospitalized for ten days and then returned home. I sent a message to the ICE supervisor of our activities at the Bristol County Prison to let him know about my absence, and he said it is OK to take my time out while recovering. I missed ministering to the inmates.
I was surprised when I went back to visit the inmates in the first week of October. The inmates gladly received me, stating that they were praying for me since they guessed that something serious had happened to me, because they were aware of how much I appreciate being with them. It was a good, encouraging feeling to acknowledge how important to them is our Bible Study; how they missed our relationship, and how important sharing God’s Word with them is. Then, I realized how they also appreciate the Presbyterian Ministry supporting their faith and their daily life.
May God be always glorified through the presence of someone who cares for them all, despite their status or struggles. Now we are enjoying our time together even more than before, as we take more time to sing songs of worship and pray, along with the Word of God being shared with them all.
The attendance has been increasing in the first group and about the same in the second group, considering that many people have been dismissed, either getting their permission to stay in our country or deported.
Not All Worship/Bible Study Groups Are Identical — by Alonso DaCunha
The Bible study periods for each of the five groups that I have been leading have similar characteristics but are different. The 9:00AM Wednesday group sits around a round table, where we participate in the study using Bibles and paper on which to take notes. We begin the study with prayers. The group that meets at 10:00 on the same day always starts with people standing on their feet and clapping their hands. A lot of them bring curiosity, questions, and knowledge of various subjects. After they are done clapping we talk about The Bible and questions are raised. At the end of the period, without exception, all will stand and finish the period with hands clapping once again.
Other groups, in a different jail, express themselves in different ways. Here there is more participation in the community with questions, curiosity, and involvement, but the studies can’t take long. At the end they form a line, where they expect me to pray for each of them individually, putting their hands on each other’s heads and praying over each other. In the last group they sit on the floor even if there are chairs available, and one person is expected to bring food, such as crackers or bread. We sit on the floor in a circle and share the food in equal amounts. Even though there might be a lot of people and not a lot of food, we always distribute the same amount of food, however small, to each person. After the food is given we hold hands in the circle and we pray. It always brings to mind the Last Supper. After this we begin the study.
This is the body of Christ in different ways and places, different ways but only one God.
Where Undocumented Immigrants Are Held — by John Webster
The Fall 2018 issue of the SPLC Report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center contains a special report on their Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. The Report includes stories of the trials and tribulations incarcerated undocumented immigrants face, stories not unlike the stories with which readers of this newsletter are familiar. However, the Report also includes articles concerning the law which are worth mentioning here.
One concerns a lawsuit which the SPLC has brought against CoreCivic Inc., the for-profit owner of a very large detention center in Georgia and of several others as well. They charge CoreCivic with using forced immigrant inmate labor for kitchen and cleaning work in the facility, paying them about fifty cents an hour, thus avoiding hiring local workers at regular wages and hence increasing their own profits. Immigrant detainees are subject to great pressure to work and need money to buy necessities (soap, toothpaste, etc.) at the prison store.
Another article describes the work done by the over 600 volunteer pro bono lawyers, law students, and student translators recruited by the SPLC to help undocumented immigrant inmates to apply for and gain refugee status. Immigrants with legal help have a much higher success rate in this respect than do those without it.
Undocumented immigrants arrested in Connecticut and Rhode Island are sent to facilities outside these states. PIM visits those in the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) units in three prisons located in eastern Massachusetts. These prisons are not privately owned but are run by the counties in which they are located. PIM has received no reports of forced labor in them, but their inmates have little money to spend at the prison store or for phone calls. The cost of legal aid is high. There are agencies which do offer some legal aid and help with legal expenses, but not on the scale of SPLC. The biggest difference among these three prisons PIM workers have noticed concern the degree of tight control they exercise over the inmates as well as the tightness of the regulations governing our workers moving among them.
Visiting a Supporting Church — by Roland Chase
Rev. Alonso DaCunha and his wife, Katia, visited First Presbyterian Church, Newport, on Sunday, October 28th, to update the congregation on the ministry of PIM since Rev. Gerson Annunciação moved away. They were introduced and gave a brief five or six minute report during the worship service. Afterwards they met with about a dozen church members in a separate room for an informal – and wide-ranging – discussion.
Those who attended raised basic questions about which prisons the DaCunhas visit, what they do there, and who attends their Bible studies. There were also some penetrating questions about how the current policies of ICE affect the prisoners and their families, and whether the prisoners were local or came from the southern border area.
In addition, Katia and Alonso shared stories of particular inmates whom they had gotten to know, and what has happened to a few who were deported, sometimes to countries they had only known as children. The consensus among those who heard the DaCunhas was that their visit was a significant boost to the church´s missions program.
RECENT DONATIONS RECEIVED 2018
This ministry is dependent upon gifts from individuals and congregations. We thank these donors for gifts. They lift our spirits and keep us going: First Presbyterian Church, Stamford; First Presbyterian Church, Newport, First Presbyterian Church, New Haven, Greenwood Community Church, Presbyterian, Providence Presbyterian Church; Ralph Jones and anonymous donors
To donate by mail make check or money order payable to Presbytery of Southern New England (include designation: for PIM)
Send to PSNE, P.O. Box 388, Chester, CT 06412