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Reflection on Ministry with Detainees in El Paso

Sister Rita Specht, RSM, talks with a detained man held in the El Paso Service Processing Center in Texas. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Monday, June 09, 2014

(El Paso, Texas) June 9, 2014 — For the past five years, Sister Rita Specht, RSM, has worked with men and women held in detention. Sr. Rita is part of the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA chaplaincy program, which provides pastoral and religious assistance to meet the needs of non-citizens detained by the Department of Homeland Security in three U.S. federal detention centers located in Texas, Arizona and New York. These programs enable people of all faiths to have access to pastoral care within their faith tradition.  

Sr. Rita will step down from her ministry with JRS at the end of this month. Here she shares a reflection of her time working with undocumented migrants and asylum seekers.

My ministry at the El Paso Processing Center began in July of 2009 when, as a volunteer, I provided spiritual counseling with the female detainees. I moved to the border of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, in 2007, because of my desire to work with immigrants.

Doing spiritual counselling and being present to the women helped me become aware of the struggles that so many of them have. Some had left their countries of origin to find a new life in the "land of promise." They fled poverty or violence and abuse in their own countries only to find themselves detained because they are undocumented. Some had been living in the United States for years without documents and were stopped by police for minor or serious crimes, and delivered to immigration authorities.

I learned the importance of the Jesuit Refugee Service value of accompaniment. Many of the problems that detainees present are overwhelming to them. My ministry is to listen and be present to them in their pain and sadness. Often tears flow as they speak. It may be the only time in the detention center that they are able to tell their story to a compassionate, non-judgmental listener.

Usually our visits end with scripture and or prayer. One of the sad things is that at times those who were threatened with violence or death have no proof, since in some of the countries in Latin America, they are afraid to report the threats to the police for fear that some of them may be connected with the criminals.

One man said that he had received threats on his cell phone, but had to sell it so that he would have money to cross the border. He had no other proof. Others leave with only the clothes on their backs and no money. Some have come to try to earn money for a sick child or parent in their country of origin. One ran from an abusive husband who was trying to kill her only to be captured by a group of men in the U.S. who sexually abused her for two months before she escaped. Travelling across country she was apprehended by Border Patrol. Through counselling with a Psychologist, participation in the STARZ program (for victims of sexual abuse), spiritual counselling, Capacitar, and her strong faith, she was able to begin the healing process.

I have learned from the detainees as well. Many of them have a strong faith in God that supports them during this time. At times they feel alone and an absence of God, but hold to their faith that everything will work out according to God’s will for them. I have needed to reflect on my own faith in times of difficulty. Detainees find support from prayer together in the barracks, as well as in the religious services offered for the various denominations.

Part of accompaniment is to respond to the requirements of the various religions. At first I felt that giving out special diet cards to those whose religion required it was just a task, but I began to see that the manner in which I approached each detainee at this time was a chance to be present, even when I could not speak their language. This came home to me when the Sikhs began to greet me each time they saw me with "Namaste" (meaning the Sacred in me greets the Sacred in you.)

The greeting of "Namaste" is one that we use in our Capacitar program here at the Center. Capacitar is a program for healing and wholeness. Its goal is to heal ourselves and to heal our world. As volunteers, Sister Kathy Braun, OSF, and I began this program with the women about four years ago; it flowed from our times of Spiritual Direction with them. 

It has proved effective in giving them tools to manage stress, depression and physical pain. Through such exercises and practices such as tai chi, acupressure and breathing techniques, they learn to manage stress and pay attention to their bodies. Since the goal of Capacitar is to heal ourselves and to heal our world, we call attention to the needs of the world and send positive energy where it is needed. The participants are encouraged to practice the exercises themselves and to teach others in the barracks and family and friends when they leave the detention center.

As I leave the El Paso Processing Center and JRS, I will take with me what I have learned as I continue to minister with Immigrants in the Chicago area. Being part of the JRS team here has been a blessing to me.

And Sister Rita has been a blessing to Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.



In the first quarter of 2014, JRS/USA chaplaincy programs coordinated 310 religious services, 129 religious teachings, and 162 spiritual support sessions totaling 9,591 unique or multiple participations by detainees. JRS/USA's chaplaincy staff spent 281 hours of direct service offering religious services, religious teachings, and spiritual support. 

In addition, our chaplains spent 258 hours visiting detainees in special housing units as well as 422 hours providing detainees with religious items, processing requests for religious diets, handling marriage requests, tending to special needs, facilitating volunteer applications, and addressing emergency notifications. 

Volunteers played a significant role by giving 325 hours for religious services, religious teachings, and spiritual support. The religious profile of the detainee population that participated in chaplaincy programs was 34% Roman Catholic, 38% other Christian faiths, 14% Muslim, less than 1% Jewish, and 14% other religions such as Hinduism, Rastafari, and Sikhism. Sixteen percent of services were offered in English, 56% in Spanish or bilingual English/Spanish, and 29% were in other languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, and Punjabi.