By Steve Pavey
LUMPKIN, Ga. (Mennonite Church USA)—On the morning of April 9, 2015, five immigrants-rights activists went to court in Lumpkin, Ga., facing up to 12 months in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.
At the culmination of the Nov. 22, 2014, Shut Down Stewart vigil, Kevin Caron, Maureen Fitzsimons, Anton Flores-Maisonet, Rebecca Kanner and Jason McGaughey engaged in an act of civil disobedience at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, a for-profit facility that holds up to 1,750 immigrants for deportation proceedings. Georgia State Patrol officers and sheriff’s deputies arrested the “Stewart Five” after they peacefully attempted to cross onto the property owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to approach the prison fence to pray.
“As a Christ follower, I had to decide whether to obey Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and CCA or obey God,” said Anton Flores-Maisonet, founding member of the Alterna Community in LaGrange, Ga., a bilingual Anabaptist community of Christ-followers devoted to faithful acts of hospitality, mercy and justice. “Like Peter and John in Acts 4, I chose obedience to God because I could not ‘keep from speaking about what I have seen and heard.’ Since 2007 I have seen and heard too much about Stewart Detention Center that breaks the heart of God.”
In court, the judge dropped all charges against the five activists without hearing a single testimony. The movement to shut down Stewart Detention Center continues to grow largely because of the leadership of Flores-Maisonet, who also co-founded El Refugio, a place of refuge for the family and friends of those detained at the immigration detention center.
The extensive record of abuse, neglect and death of migrants at Stewart Detention Center has been documented in the 2012 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia report, Prisoners of Profit. The Detention Watch Network lists Stewart Detention Center as one of the 10 worst immigration prisons in the U.S.
Azadeh Shahshahani, a lawyer and activist, wrote in a November 2014 article for The Hill, “Living nightmare for detained immigrants in Georgia,” that the gross abuse of human rights continues.
“This treatment is inhumane, un-American and do recall, it is also for profit,” Shahshahani wrote. “The time has come for the Obama administration and ICE to shut Stewart down and for this painful chapter in the American treatment of immigrants to close.”
The ninth annual Shut Down Stewart vigil will be held Nov. 21, 2015, the same weekend as the nearby School of Americas (SOA) Watch vigil. Father Roy Bourgeois, SOA Watch founder, attended the trial of the “Stewart Five” to show his support and make the connections between unjust U.S. foreign policies and the buildup of the U.S. immigration industrial complex focused on detention and deportation.
Bourgeois shared, “It is all about solidarity and that all-important question: What are we going to do to express our love, support and solidarity with so many of our [immigrant] sisters and brothers?”
A ministry of accompaniment: a reflection
By Steve Pavey
Anton Flores-Maisonet took me to visit Marbella and her two young children. Their husband and father, Javier, was picked up in the dawn hours one morning in early March 2015 by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as part of Operation Crosscheck and was eventually taken to Stewart Detention Center. That morning, Javier’s family watched him be taken away for a 13-year-old DUI conviction. Because the pain of his absence is already too much to bear for Marbella, she tells the children their father is working far from home.
Marbella’s family lives in a neighborhood adjacent to where Anton and his faith community, Alterna, live together as a bilingual community of Christ-followers devoted to faithful acts of hospitality, mercy and justice. Their ministry of accompaniment with migrants has led to a cooperative housing effort with immigrants, advocacy efforts to fight anti-immigrant laws, and the co-founding of El Refugio, a hospitality house near Stewart Detention Center.
El Refugio serves as a place of refuge for the family and friends of men detained at Stewart Detention Center. Volunteers are coordinated so that the house is open to provide free meals, free housing, friendship and support every weekend throughout the year. P.J. Edwards, another of El Refugio’s co-founders, laments that one of their struggles is just convincing the families of detained men that such a ministry of Christian hospitality really exists. What an indictment of both a “democratic” nation that terrorizes migrant families and a “Christian” church that demonstrates indifference!
We gathered for early morning prayers with Alterna and some of the “Stewart Five” on April 9, the day of the trial. The poetry of Psalm 118 took on fresh meaning as we read,
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.
All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
As we closed in prayer, we listened to the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his letter to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., about his experience of walking in solidarity in 1963: “When I marched in Selma, I felt my legs were praying.” On Nov. 22, 2014, five protesters prayed with their legs and were arrested for this act of “divine obedience.” Perhaps it’s time we all began praying with our legs!
—Steve Pavey, Ph.D., is a documentary photographer, applied anthropologist and contemplative activist. “My creative process is deeply shaped by accompanying and being accompanied by humanity living on the margins of empire, interweaving our stories through the arts towards collective action and mutual liberation.” (www.stevepavey.com)
Anton Flores-Maisonet serves on Mennonite Church USA’s Interchurch Relations Reference Group and co-chairs the Beloved Community Council of DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), a ministry of Mennonite Mission Network. He will present a workshop at the KC2015 convention.
The “Stewart Five” raising their hands and singing We Shall Overcome as they are handcuffed and arrested for civil disobedience at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., acting on their consciences for migrant justice. (Photo by Steve Pavey)
The “Stewart Five” after their court appearance for civil disobedience calling to #ShutDownStewart. (Photo by Steve Pavey)
Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of Americas (SOA) Watch, attending the trial of the “Stewart Five” to demonstrate his solidarity and support to #ShutDownStewart. (Photo by Steve Pavey)
The Nov. 22, 2014, march and vigil to #ShutDownStewart where the “Stewart Five” were arrested. (Photo by Steve Pavey)
The daughter of Javier, who is detained at Stewart Detention Center and faces imminent deportation. (Photo by Steve Pavey)