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How to Organize a Group
Monday, February 15, 2010


MIra Loma Detention Facility in Lancaster, Calif. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

1. Organize a Leadership Team

Building Interest and Leaders

First, you should determine the level of interest within your chosen group or community for a Religious Services Volunteer Program. The best ways to accomplish this are through an email or information session. Once you have established the interest, choose a few people that can serve as group leaders. Meet with your leaders and divide tasks among yourselves such as contacting the facility, recruiting other volunteers, ensuring all volunteer forms are complete, and discussing the detention facility conditions with the group. Then schedule meetings (for the leadership and the entire group).  Meetings are excellent venues for coordinating logistics and emphasize self-care principles.

Purpose and Parameters

The group leadership should discuss and determine the goals of volunteers in the Religious Services Program as well as any other parameters. The purpose and parameters are essential so that all group members can organize activities effectively.

You could consider the following questions when deciding on a purpose and parameters:

  • What are the purposes of the religious services?
  • What services does the group hope to provide to detainees?
  • How can we express our commitment to people in detention?
  • What does the group hope to gain from the program?
  • What should the group be aware of during visits? (e.g. not to proselytize, how to deal with the power dynamics between volunteer and detainee, the nature of the relationship between volunteer and detainee, and confidentiality of any information shared between a volunteer and detainee)
  • What will make this Religious Services Program successful?

The answers to these questions must be clear when starting your group. While all these questions are important, it is necessary that the leadership emphasizes the nature of the relations between the volunteer and detainee. There are boundaries to this relationship that all group members should thoroughly understand and never cross (e.g. getting too emotionally involved or becoming romantically involved). Furthermore, volunteers have more power in the volunteer-detainee relationship. Because the power differential, the volunteer should not abuse his position or make a detainee feel that he should be of a certain faith to receive services. When ministering the asylum seekers, volunteers should be cognizant that some asylum seekers have suffered religious persecution; therefore, proselytizing is very inappropriate. 

Establish Group Procedures

All groups should keep a few records to ease the operation of the group. One important file to keep is a spreadsheet with names, email addresses, phone numbers, languages spoken, and interests.

If your group will be providing transportation to the detention center, the leadership needs to decide how to announce trips and receive RSVPs. An email listserv or Facebook page could work very well.

The leadership needs to make sure that volunteers are meeting their obligations to the group and detainees. For groups in which volunteers will go to the detention facility alone, it is best to have volunteers email one of the leaders a short report after each visit. For example, “I (name) provided (religious service) on (date) to a group of (number) detainees/the following detainees: (names of the detainees).” If volunteers are making group visits, you could have volunteers keep a log book with similar information.

The leadership and the entire group should plan to meet on a regular basis. Meetings are good venues to coordinate activities, discuss visits made by volunteers, train volunteers, and offer support.

2. Recruit, Screen, and Train Volunteers

Initially, recruit a small group of committed volunteers that are interested in providing religious services to immigrants from around the world. When recruiting volunteers, possible sources include your group, family, friends, other religious congregations, other civic groups in your community.

It is important that you do not contact consulates or embassies of detainees. For example, asylum seekers are fleeing countries whose governments could not or would not protect them. Also, you should not contact members of any local expatriate community without the consent of detainees because there may be political or ethnic conflicts that you are not aware of.

3. Begin Visits

Training and orientation of volunteers is essential. Experienced volunteers should mentor new volunteers. New volunteers should make their initial visit with an experienced volunteer. This gives the new volunteer the opportunity to determine if the group’s work is a good match. When the new volunteer is ready, he can visit the facility on his own.

4. Expand the Program

The group leadership should establish recruitment materials that will publicize the religious services program and inform potential new volunteers.  Possible materials include a program brochure, a presentation to your local church/school, contacting other organizations or groups that might be interested, advertising with announcements around your church/school, talk with neighbors, friends, or family, and conducting an information session so people can understand the importance of religious services that detainees receive.

5. Develop Resources

You should develop a resource database that group members can use.  Possible resources include lists containing local civil rights, human rights, or immigration groups. 


The information in this section was adapted from the Detention Watch Network’s Visiting Immigrants in U.S. Detention Facilities.