Above: The Rev. Mary Kohlstaedt Huycke prays at the fence surrounding the Federal Detention Center in Seatac, Washington, during a June 24 prayer vigil in support of immigrant parents inside the prison who’ve been separated from their children. Huycke is district superintendent of the Seven Rivers District of the United Methodist Church.
Story by Rev. Richenda Fairhurst | Photos by Rev. Paul Jeffrey
“Who is your neighbor?” Early Sunday morning, starting just after sunrise, United Methodists from the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference set out to answer that question with an act of public witness at the Federal Detention Center near SeaTac in Washington State. They arrived with guitars, amps, signs, stoles, coffee and prayers, setting up on the street corner outside the 8 ft wrought iron fence to sing, pray, hug, cry, and witness together.
About 75 attended the Morning Prayer Vigil organized and led by Rev. Lyda Pierce and a group of clergy and lay people energized by the recent spike in detentions of immigrants and asylees especially along the southern border of the US. In an escalation of arrests and detentions over the last number of months, ICE and Border Control separated over 2,300 children at the border, detaining them separately from the adults traveling with them, children as young as 3 months old.
The seizure of children and infants by border enforcement is unprecedented on the scale that it was ordered and practiced during the ‘zero tolerance’ period. Although the zero tolerance order has since been rescinded, detainment is still occurring and children and parents are still being held separately with no plan to reunite them.
At the start of the Annual Conference session, Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky spoke to the hearts of the hundreds of United Methodists gathered from across Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, when her opening remarks included mention of the children, mothers and fathers who were detained. This news was especially difficult, she had shared, because mothers and fathers were being detained just miles from her home and the Pacific Northwest Conference office.
”Last week I heard that 206 undocumented immigrants, 174 women and 32 men, were locked in the federal prison in my neighborhood, some had been separated from their children,” said Stanovsky. The Bishop gave voice to the anger and lament experienced by many members of the Annual Conference as she continued, “It makes my blood boil. I want to do something, I want to stand outside [the detention center] with a great big banner. I want to send a personal note to each one of those 206 people that says there is a neighbor outside who knows they’re there and cares. I want to see the building crumble.”
The Bishop shared lament but also hope, finding hope in the upwelling energy of Love that erupted across the country in response to the suffering at the border. She noted that this upswelling forced a policy change from the government. “People who act on the love of God and neighbor are strong,” she said. She encouraged those attending opening worship to be strong in love, “Every one of the communities that you represent needs and expects the church to care for people who need it, and even to change systems of harm.”
Click here to view more vigil photos from Paul Jeffrey on Kairos Photos.
Among the attendees at the vigil were a few of the #UMC600 who had signed and submitted a formal complaint against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a fellow United Methodist, and an enforcer of the zero tolerance policy. Rev. David Wright, the primary author of the complaint, was motivated to attend the Morning Prayer Vigil in part because of the Bishop’s words. He explains, “The SeaTac Detention Center is about two miles from my house, and Bishop Stanovsky’s words about ‘in my neighborhood’ at the start of Annual Conference resonated deeply. I had not been able to make a few earlier actions of witness, and so it felt very important to get literally out on the sidewalk in a prayerful, meaningful manner.”
For Rev. Wright these acts of witness go together. “While the complaint is an attempt to elicit a particular action – to equip his pastors to work with Mr. Sessions towards a change of heart and action – It is not enough to try and change one person, nor is it enough for me to sit home and post or write. This morning’s vigil and other actions of witness, disruption, prayer, song, solidarity, and more…all of these are critical as we try to offer a glimpse of a different Christianity, a different America, than the one that is experienced as hateful and harmful by the guests and strangers seeking safety in our midst.”
The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference Session gathered attendees from three states. Even for those far from the ‘neighborhood’ of the Tacoma/Seattle area, their presence at the vigil felt to them like an important act of love.
Lyn Rush, pastor and church planter in the Vancouver/Portland area of Southwest Washington State, leads Pinoy Van-Port Ministries that serves Filipino Americans and immigrants. When she saw the notice announcing the vigil, “my heart said that I should be there.” She sees the response of the heart as “part of our Methodist heritage through John Wesley,” explaining, “I stay and stand feeling that God’s Holy Spirit is with us, that it is continually knocking in everyone’s heart to see, listen and feel.” Being present at the Detention Center, she said, “is a representation of God’s love and hope.”
Organizers of the Morning Prayer Vigil included Rev. Lyda Pierce, Coordinator for Hispanic Latino Ministries Pacific Northwest Conference, Rev. Shalom Agtarap, Associate Director of Strategic Faith Community Development, Joel Rodriguez, Pastor at Sunnyside United Methodist Church, Rev. Jen Stewart Pastor of the Ellensburg United Methodist Church and others. Activities associated with the vigil included making paper hearts of prayer, making signs, and taking photos/selfies with messages to send to Jeff Sessions and/or to stand ¡Presente! with the detained.
“There is so much going on with immigration at the moment,” says Rev. Pierce, “It is necessary for our own spirit to be connected, to pray, to be near some of the people and to see one of the institutions involved, and hopefully touch some of those inside with our presence. They are in our prayers and we stand with them.”
You can watch the Morning Prayer Vigil as streamed on Facebook Live below.
Richenda Fairhurst is an elder from the Pacific Northwest Conference serving as Senior Pastor of Ashland First United Methodist Church in Ashland, Oregon.
Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary who writes about the work of the church around the world as senior correspondent for Response, the magazine of United Methodist Women. Paul also provides coverage of emergencies for the ACT Alliance, a Geneva-based global alliance of churches responding to disasters.