Tina Schlabach lives with her husband, Jay, in Tucson, Arizona. She serves as co-pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, offers spiritual companioning and visits with women from Central America and Mexico held in immigration detention. Tina loves conversation with friends, reading, hiking, time with her three young adult children and her morning coffee.
I am so energized by partnering! Collaborating with others feeds my spirit and creativity, and the results are often “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Partnering with God’s Spirit means, increasingly, for me, asking for help from others who have a different set of gifts to contribute than I have and working together in our diverse ways in the struggle to meet a specific need for justice and compassion.
Here is one of these partnering stories.
Our congregation, Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, in Tucson, Arizona, supports a community visitation ministry inside Eloy Detention Center, one of many private, for-profit prisons contracted with by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house immigrants waiting for their court hearings in their struggle to stay in this country. About one year ago, I met Gemina, a Honduran mother. Like all who are imprisoned in immigration detention, Gemina is living with the pain of being separated from her family. Gemina’s three young teenage daughters, who together with their mother recently fled their home in Honduras, live in Indianapolis with friends. This family was targeted and threatened by gangs in their neighborhood, triggering Gemina’s decision to seek asylum in the U.S.
As my friendship with Gemina deepened, so did my compassion for her distress over this long separation from her daughters. Last spring I reached out to Jen, a close and trusted friend in Indianapolis, asking if she could make contact with Gemina’s daughters. Jen carefully and appropriately inquired with school counselors about the girls, who were excelling at school but feeling isolated at home. As summer approached Jen wondered if it was time for these girls and their mom to see each other. She did some fundraising through her friend and church networks, and came up with enough money for the three girls to fly to Tucson for four days in July. My husband Jay, and I had the fun of hosting the girls and we were able to drive them to the detention center every day for visits with their mom.
On the Saturday of their visit, we joined other families entering the detention center to see loved ones, as part of weekend public visitation hours. We took a number and waited to be called. Wanting to give this family time alone, I had brought a book with me to read during the two hours of allowed visit time. But no, I would not be allowed to take anything inside with me. So once we were inside the visitation room with the girls and their mom reuniting again, holding hands and talking nonstop during their precious time together, I was given a spot to sit beside the guard whose job it was to oversee the visitation as people came in and out of the room. Ordinarily, it is challenging for me to sit with nothing to do.
But that day the two hours went by in a prayerful flow of paying attention … to families sharing the communion of snacks that fell out of vending machines, as tears spilled, as laughter lifted spirits, as parents, spouses and children reconnected for a time.
Shortly after that visit, connecting first through Jen’s amazing fundraising efforts, Shalom Mennonite in Indianapolis invited the girls to come to church. Families reached out to them with outings and lunch invitations. In time, the girls have shared more of their story with their new church community. They wrote to me and talked to their mother about how important this new sense of belonging is to them and how much they feel cared for in their new church family.
In October Gemina received the disappointing and frightening news that her asylum appeal was denied. She could be deported any day, and did receive notice of imminent deportation. Pastor Brian from Shalom Mennonite in Indianapolis and I went to work fast, contacting the wonderful network of pro bono immigrant rights attorney groups that we know, and got a temporary “stay of deportation” signed for Gemina, which protects her from deportation for a couple of months. In the meantime we are seeking additional legal help for her with immigrant rights attorney groups.
No matter what happens, Gemina and her three daughters now have two church communities who will continue to walk with them for the long haul. As she passes the one-year mark in immigration detention, Gemina has become the leader of a prayer group that meets daily when her unit goes outside “in the yard,” supporting each other in the sorrows and uncertainties of living inside immigration detention. Her girls have become a tight knit trio that support each other in working hard at school and in raising each other’s spirits.
We must strengthen our efforts to turn the public tide against our current system of imprisoning people who come to our country because they are afraid to return home.
We can imagine and create better alternatives to this model that treats people, created in God’s image, as if they are commodities. In the meantime, we accompany those we meet who are caught in the cruelties of this system.
In our partnering together God can do “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” And that gives us energy for the journey ahead!