Here’s how it “came to pass” that Jesus visited our humble home in Northwest Pasadena on Monday night, a week before Christmas. Since last June I have been visiting detainees at Adelanto Detention Center, a privately run facility in the high desert near Victorville that houses nearly two thousand undocumented men and women who are incarcerated simply for lacking proper papers. Yesterday I got a call from Liza, one of the organizers of these visits to Adelanto, asking if my wife and I would be willing to house a young man recently released on bail.
"I'll have to ask my wife but I don't think she'll mind," I said. "What's his name?"
“Jesús,” Liza replied.
“Wow,” I said. “How could we not let Jesus visit our home on Christmas!”
Jesús turned out to be a tall, slim, quiet young man from a Latin American country. He crossed the border in 2015. He was straightaway placed as an unaccompanied minor into a California Youth Authority facility. On his 18th birthday this past October, he was immediately transferred to adult detention.
Adelanto Detention Center is run by private business entity called GEO that has a contract with ICE. Currently there are quotas: the government guarantees to GEO that they will provide minimum 1,455 detainees to be housed at a cost of $111.92 per detainee, per day and any additional detainees will be housed at a cost of $50 per detainee per day. See https://indivisiblemb.org/2017/07/24/adelanto-abuse-of-immigrants-in-detention-for-profit/
GEO’s mission is the opposite of Jesus’s. When Jesus first proclaimed his mission in the town of Nazareth, he told his townspeople that he had come to proclaim “release to the prisoners.” GEO profits from incarcerating as many people as possible.
We welcomed Jesús into our home by offering him cookies and tea. When we learned that the celebration of his 18th birthday took place in detention, we also brought him some cake left over from our Christmas party and lit a candle for him to blow out and make a wish. When we sang “Happy Birthday,” he was all smiles. Since he is a Christian, we gave him a Spanish/English Bible, for which he was very grateful.
That evening he showered and settled down to sleep in a comfortable bed for the first time in over a year, wrapped in a cozy comforter made by my wife’s grandmother. Ours was the first home he stayed in since arriving in the US. For nearly two years, he slept in a noisy, institutional environment.
We made huevos rancheros for breakfast and lots of coffee (which Jesús stated was unavailable in Adelanto). Jesús also described his meals: for breakfast two tiny pancakes (no butter or syrup) and a small carton of milk. For lunch, beans and rice or spaghetti, and for dinner, leftovers. In one month, he lost five kilos (11 pounds). He was grateful for our food and also for the fresh air and sunlight when took him on a tour of our garden and he picked a pomegranate and fresh oranges from our trees. He loved this home-cooked breakfast with fresh fruit. It was his first taste of freedom.
Jesús isn’t totally free, however. He has to wear a gps-enabled ankle bracelet to track his movements. This system has been in effect since 2014 as a way to save ICE money. Using this tracking device costs around $3.50 per day. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/gps-ankle-bracelets-used-to-track-immigrants-caught-at-border/
We learned that Jesús’s dad was a construction worker (much like Joseph, the father of Jesus, who was a carpenter). Believe it or not, the parents of our visitor Jesús was named José and his mother’s name María!
These parallels reminded me of what Jesus said about himself in Matthew 25:36: “You visited me when I was in prison….As you do for the least of these, you do it for me.” As I reflected on this message, I felt deeply honored and a sense of awe to provide hospitality to this young man who is made in the image of the Divine.
Much like my Greek father, who jumped ship in 1923 when he was fourteen and there was a quota preventing all but a handful of Greeks from entering the US legally) and like tens of thousands of other immigrants, Jesús wants to better himself. And I have a feeling he will succeed. He was very polite, offered to do dishes, and made his bed. He was an exemplary guest. We couldn’t help but think of what Paul said of guests in Hebrews 13: 2-3: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
As we waited for Liza to pick Jesús up after breakfast, we asked if he’d like to join us for our morning Bible study using a bilingual Bible. He was happy to take part. We read the story of Jesus’s birth in Luke 4 in Spanish. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it was under occupation by the Roman empire and ruled by a Roman puppet king. Immediately after his birth, Jesus’s parents had to flee their home country and became refugees in Egypt. For this reason, Jesus always had a special place in his heart for those who are displaced and homeless.
After our Bible study, we took a selfie of the three of us and sent it to his family. He then called to let them know that he was out of prison and in good hands. He has had very few opportunities to talk with his family since being detained. After connecting with his family, he looked radiant.
Liza arrived and took him to a shelter where he will be cared for and given opportunities to develop into a successful adult, so we are hopeful about his future.
We felt blessed by this visitor, and also by Liza, the dedicated woman who cared for Jesús as if he were her own son. Our visitation program affiliates with an organization called CIVIC, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement. According to its website, “CIVIC is devoted to abolishing U.S. immigration detention, while ending the isolation of people currently suffering in this profit-driven system. We visit and monitor 43 facilities and run the largest national hotline for detained immigrants. Through these windows into the system, we gather data and stories to combat injustice at the individual level and push systemic change.” If you want to learn how you can help people like Jesús, check out: http://www.endisolation.org/