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For detained immigrants, visits from clergy provide hope, comfort

The Rev. Amy Whitcomb Slemmer got coffee with Victor Gonzalez, a Venezuelan immigrant she visited while he was in custody. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Victor Gonzalez often came home bloodied from protests against the Venezuelan government. After receiving death threats, he fled to the United States in 2015 and worked in roofing, landscaping, and laundry service as an undocumented immigrant. He was driving a coworker home from work in February 2018 when he was pulled over for a traffic violation in Worcester, and charged with driving without a license.

Federal immigration officers took him into custody the next day, and he would remain in a Boston detention center for three months.

“I’ve never been in jail. It was horrible for me to go to a place and be totally disconnected from family and the whole world,” Gonzalez said through a Spanish-speaking interpreter.


As the days dragged on, Gonzalez learned from another detainee who received clergy visits that he could request one, too. The Rev. Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, a priest associate at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Boston, visited him several times.

“I felt like God was there with me,” he said of the visits. Families often can’t visit the detention center, and lawyers are allowed in but have jobs to do. So clergy often step into the breach.

Whitcomb Slemmer, who began visiting detained immigrants early last year, said detainees often start by telling her about their religious background, or how they are not sure if they believe. That leads to stories about their families, their immigration journeys, their detainment.

“I’ve heard stories about how people came to this country and what they fled in ways that are sobering and certainly expanded my understanding of desperation — and the hope that people see here,” she said. “Sometimes, we talk about deep spiritual questions. And often, we’re just connecting as neighbors might.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has always allowed clergy to visit detainees, according to spokesman John Mohan. Each detention center allows clergy visits on an individual-case basis, he said.


Immigrants interested in visits typically ask a visiting clergy member directly or other inmates, who pass along the request.

Last year, there were 182 clergy visits to ICE detainees in the Suffolk County House of Correction, which currently houses 163 detainees, according to Peter Van Delft, spokesman for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department. The numbers are likely to be slightly higher this year, he said.

The Rev. Arrington Chambliss, executive director of Episcopal City Mission, said the Trump administration’s efforts to deport undocumented immigrants have spurred clergy to visit detainees.

“The political climate has brought a number of clergy and other ministers into action — pastoral action — as a result, because it’s so blatant and targeting of those who are very vulnerable,” said Chambliss, who began her visits in fall 2017.

Chambliss said Suffolk County officials have welcomed clergy at the South Bay facility, but some detention centers in New Englandlimit the number of clergy who can visit.

“My faith values are not gray around what we should be doing in this moment,” Chambliss said. “It’s incredibly clear what we need to do to be truly living our faith — and that means to be in deep relationship with those who are under attack.”

Cantor Vera Broekhuysen of Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill agreed.

“It didn’t start with Trump, but it’s gotten exponentially worse the last couple of years,” she said of detained immigrants. “We can see that there is this giant pastoral need.”


Broekhuysen said the visits are similar to other difficult pastoral visits in which “you want so badly sometimes to be able to offer some kind of fix, some kind of way of making a situation better, and you can’t.”

Clergy said the visits are in keeping with their calling to welcome strangers and love neighbors as they love themselves.

“Part of the ministry has just grown out of necessity — that we have more and more detainees and the detainees are more and more isolated,” Whitcomb Slemmer said.

“There are times when people are concerned that nobody knows where they are, that they feel forgotten,” she said. “They worry that they are in prison, anonymous, and nobody is aware of what their circumstances are.”

Whitcomb Slemmer said there are “moments of grace,” such as when she and a Muslim detainee compared passages of the Bible and the Quran.

While she was the interim rector at All Saints Parish in Brookline, Whitcomb Slemmer preached about the people she visited in jail to help her parishioners “better understand what immigration looks like through the lens of individual people.”

In May 2018, Gonzalez was released pending his asylum hearing, which is slated for next year.

Recalling the routine of leaving his cell to eat, shower, and go outside a few times a week, Gonzalez said he “felt like a zombie.”

“It’s a place where everything is the same every day,” he said. “It was like being buried alive.”


Gonzalez said watching other inmates be deportedwas heartbreaking.

“Many cried, shouted, resisted, or threw themselves onto the floor,” he recalled.

Still, Gonzalez said he was able to keep faith,especially when he saw Whitcomb Slemmer, who he called “a representative of God.” Praying and thinking of his wife and 26-year-old son, who live in Venezuela, helped him stay sane, he said.

“I believed in God, and I was convinced that he would help me.”

Sarah Wu can be reached at sarah.wu@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @sarah_wu_.