Reflection by The Rev. Deacon Caitlyn Darnell, Director of Formation & Mission, St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, Columbia, SC
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. — Hebrews 13:3
In January of this year (at least, I think it was this year…in a pandemic what is time, really?), I stood at the end of the church driveway and excitedly waved at three “missionaries” as they departed on their first mission trip. They made the long journey from Columbia, SC to Lumpkin, GA to do a mission visiting our detained neighbors in Stewart Detention Center through El Refugio. We had just begun to develop a relationship with El Refugio through one of these parishioners who teaches about immigration advocacy at the university. She, her husband, and another parishioner piled into that car, armed with snacks and podcasts, on what I thought would be the first of many more of these trips to come.
And then, of course, came a pandemic. Stewart Detention Center closed itself to outside visitors, not just preventing our visits but inhibiting families to visit together as well. States placed stay-at-home orders and we sat wondering when and if the virus would worm its way into such faraway small places as Lumpkin, GA. We started to hear about how our neighbors on the inside were doing from our parishioner who had been volunteering on the El Refugio hotline. They heard about the virus from the news stations which frequently play on TVs, and they were afraid for their health. I cannot begin to imagine how the fear and stress I felt in the early days of the pandemic are amplified while imprisoned. Then we heard about the acts of protest that our neighbors had organized, and the responses the guards took to control them. And then we heard about the first cases.
Through El Refugio, we decided to do a small act to partner in love with our neighbors, that they may know we remember them and that we continue to walk with them. We organized a note writing campaign in the parish to write small notes of encouragement to those on the inside. While we as a congregation were reeling from what it means to be physically apart, we were able to spiritually come together by writing these notes. It was the first action we took together after the stay-at-home order took effect, and it felt like a spiritual sigh of relief. Ah yes, ok, we are still the hands and feet of Christ Jesus. My mailbox overflowed with what people discreetly dropped in the parish mail slot. My favorite was a picture of the cartoon Phineas and Ferb that one of our children drew, and a note along with it in which they practiced their French.
It is hard to walk in love during something like a pandemic. It is an evil that feels so large and pervasive that it can lead to a sense of paralysis about what we might all do about it. But even in the midst of our own worries, it is the small acts that can keep us bound together in love. A notecard is such a small thing, but it is a thing that can be held and cherished. It is a physical reminder that we remember them in their detention, and in a very small way a piece of us is there with them. The body of Christ is still the body even in changed circumstances. We still have responsibilities to one another – and that gives us a direction to go in when we feel paralyzed. The small acts guide our feet on the path of righteousness, for Jesus’ sake, and will lead us to places of deeper love and advocacy.
View the video about this ministry here.