By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
About 900 Episcopalians traveled on 14 buses to a remote Texas field July 8 to send messages of hope and solidarity to more than 500 migrant women detained a federal facility.
Holding signs, waving arms, and singing songs under the blazing Texas sun, the group did all it could to make a connection with the women, including 40 mothers who had reportedly been separated from their children at the nation’s southern border.
“I’m hoping that the people inside will be able to see and/or hear us and know that they’re not alone,” said Cynthia Bullard-Perez, a visitor to General Convention from St. Mary’s Church in New York City, before the prayer vigil started.
From a field in Taylor, Texas, where the group was permitted to gather about a quarter-mile away, prayer vigil participants could see the hulking, almost windowless T. Don Hutto Residential Center in the distance on the edge of an industrial park. But it was not clear whether detainees were aware of the mass event outside.
That changed, however, shortly after several hundred breached the perimeter of the permitted area and slowly walked down a one-lane road to the facility’s driveway entrance. They were following California Bishop Marc Andrus, who spoke later about the decision. He had raised the idea with someone next to him in the crowd.
“I said, ‘Do you think it would be okay to just go there?’” Andrus recalled later in the day at the House of Bishops session. “I felt nervous about it, but I just started to walk.”
A Taylor Police Department raced ahead of the group with blue and red lights flashing but did not stop protesters until they reached the gate. Lined up along the roadside, demonstrators spotted a white piece of paper waving in one of 10 narrow window slits in the façade.
“They’re waving!” several demonstrators cried. “We see you!” Soon chants of encouragement gathered momentum, including “You are not alone!” and “No están solas!”
The spontaneous mini-pilgrimage to the entrance was part of a day as emotionally intense as the scorching sun, which drove many to wear wide-brimmed hats and hold parasols. A small stage, wedged between two Little League baseball fields, gave a platform for Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to address the crowd. Others read Scripture verses such as Leviticus 34:19: “The stranger living among you must be treated as your native-born.”
The event provided a Sunday morning opportunity during General Convention for participants to venture beyond the Austin Convention Center and nearby hotels where meetings have been concentrated. They rode in coaches chartered by Trinity Wall Street, a New York City parish with extensive grant-making and justice ministries. During the 32-mile journey, city outskirts gave way to tree groves and open fields, dotted occasionally by grazing cattle and farm equipment for sale.
When the group arrived, members of St. James Church in Taylor were prepared to welcome them. The congregation of about 50 members had scrambled at short notice to make sure permits were in place.
St. James vicar Terry Pierce said she visits the detention center routinely to post bond and convey paperwork for eligible women. But she was also concerned to honor the permit’s limits and to maintain good relationships with Taylor police and detention center employees, many of whom live in town.
“The employees in there are often very fearful of protesters, of public confrontation,” Pierce said.
The event had the air of a prayer vigil combined with a political rally. Protesters spontaneously broke into slogan chants and songs of solidarity. They sang “We Shall Overcome,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Amazing Grace.” Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town said he had tears welling up behind his sunglasses.
“It evokes emotions of my incarceration under apartheid,” Makgoba said. “I never thought it would be happening in democracies like yours.”
At the facility entrance, Pierce persuaded protesters to return to the permitted area, where the 90-minute vigil was winding down. As participants prepared to return to the convention center, she suggested those who want to stay involved might find local opportunities through Grassroots Leadership, a group that aims to end for-profit prison and detention center contracting. Making donations is among the ways to help, she said.
“It takes money to bond women out, it takes money for their travel to get them where they’re going, it takes money to reunite them with their children,” Pierce said. “I am hopeful that people will give their money.”