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Reflections of a chaplain in a federal detention center

To avoid burnout and relieve the stress of her job, Sister Beatrice would visit a ranch. "There I would feed my spirit as I fed chickens, collected eggs, helped rake manure, pet the horses, donkeys and a llama. God provided refreshment in this beautiful world of nature and revived my flagging energy, allowing me to keep walking with his children, our detained brothers and sisters." (photo courtesy of Sister Beatrice)
Wednesday, October 10, 2012

(Washington, D.C. ) October 10, 2012 — After seven years as a chaplain for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA at the federal detention center in El Paso, Texas, Sister Beatrice Costagliola has retired. Shortly after stepping down from her position in El Paso, Sr. Beatrice shared with us some of her journey.

In 2005, I was invited to join Jesuit Refugee Service/USA as assistant chaplain at the El Paso Detention Center. Although at first hesitant, I agreed to the position upon understanding that the primary role of the chaplain was "to show the compassionate face of God to those waiting for deportation." I felt this call tugging at my heartstrings. 

My previous experience of 20 years living among the poor of Peru, Mexico and Nicaragua gave me a firsthand knowledge of the dire situations many faced, and I could resonate with their aspirations to come North.

The detainees have multiple needs. For most, it is a total shock to be apprehended, handcuffed by the Border Patrol and placed in confinement. They become a number (their Identifying Alien Number). I have found that their basic need is to be recognized as individuals and to have someone listen to their stories with full attention and empathy. Mothers who felt forced to leave behind young children and men and women who cannot locate spouses experience deep distress and feel bereft of any emotional support.

While the majority of detainees have returned to their native countries, there are some notable exceptions. One such case was that of Marcela, a young woman from El Salvador.

She left her small daughter with her parents upon learning that her husband was hospitalized in Houston with an aggressive cancer, and might have to have one of his legs amputated. he was in deep depression, and Marcela was distraught at not being able to reach his bedside.

She was scheduled for deportation, but after some weeks of counseling and legal help from an advocacy organization, the clouds of anguish dispersed. A dialog with ICE officials brought the good news that she would be granted a humanitarian visa. When I last saw Marcela in the rear seat of a detention center van, she was about to depart through the electronic gates, her face radiant with joy.

My seven years working with Jesuit Refugee Service/USA has opened my mind to the plight or people, migrants and refugees from all over the world. At present I have no fixed plan for the immediate future. I know, however, that in El Paso there is a need in several organizations for people who are bilingual. I am considering offering my services in a shelter for homeless women.

Whatever I do, I shall never forget the hundreds of detainees who have shared with me their hopes, their dreams, their very lives.

by Sister Beatrice Costagliola, F.M.M.

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA provides direct service via the Detention Chaplaincy Program. The JRS/USA chaplaincy programs provide pastoral and religious assistance to meet the needs of non-citizens detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) both in three U.S. federal detention centers located in Texas, Arizona, New York, and in a Los Angeles County detention center in California. These programs enable people of all faiths to have access to pastoral care within their faith tradition.

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