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A captivating talk on captivity

Bolivian immigrant now works for a program that ministered to her behind bars

By Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Rocio Calderon, right, shared her story with a Presbyterian Mission Agency delegation. Interpreting for her was the Rev. Elizabeth Toland Smith. (Photo by José Luis Casal)

TUCSON, Ariz. – Rocio Calderon kept a Presbyterian Mission Agency delegation spellbound Monday just by telling her story.

Calderon, who grew up in Bolivia, was locked away in a U.S. detention center for two years even after being economically exploited by an employer. One thing that kept her going, she said, was regular cards and visits by the Casa Mariposa Detention Visitation Program.

“It was a relief to see someone who would take time to come visit so I didn’t feel so alone,” she said. People would speak with her attorney and ask her how her case was going. “They would write and say they’re praying for me and I thought, how great that someone’s praying for me.”

Now not only is she a part-time cook, she works for the same program that helped her through her own incarceration. “Now I am around people who transmit a lot of trust,” she said, including people who support detainees from countries outside Latin America, including Russia, China and African nations.

After her talk, her interpreter, the Rev. Elizabeth Toland Smith, provided cards for the visitors to write their own encouraging messages to people in detention.

The effort made Calderon smile.

“I have all mine saved,” she said of the many cards people sent her. “We know the people who receive these letters will feel the same way.”

Barbara Freischlad, who leads children’s music at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, led a visiting Presbyterian Mission Agency delegation through some Spanish-language songs Monday. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

Smith’s husband, the Rev. Bart Smith, pastor of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, said members “are passionate about following Jesus for the common good.” Last year the church, which has about 200 members, decided to open its doors to people from Central America’s Northern Triangle who were fleeing violence and extreme poverty. One week each month, the church houses families – up to about 70 people at a time – seeking asylum in the U.S. They call the transitional housing the Hotel San Marcos.

Smith calls the welcome part of the church’s “longstanding commitment to living out the nearness of God’s reign.”

“Our strongest witness is being human in a dehumanizing situation, meeting Christ in other people,” he said.

That evening the delegation, which is traveling the U.S. southern border and will conclude with time in Guatemala, was hosted by Northminster Presbyterian Church, a church that welcomes African immigrants and their service, in some cases, as ruling elders and deacons.

“They are here because they would be dead if they weren’t here,” said Bonnie Thompson, a Northminster member. For worship the women from Africa dress to the nines, she said, sending for fabric from their former home so they can make beautiful clothing for their family to wear on Sundays.

“They are a blessing to our church with their spirit,” she said.

The Northminster church also hosts the Middle Eastern Presbyterian Fellowship, which holds services in Arabic. Its pastor, the Rev. George Bitar, said the congregation started “as people who came here as refugees.” One of his earliest tasks was visiting Tucson-area employers seeking jobs for some of his congregants.

“We are doing the job the Lord asked us to do,” he said, calling it “a joy that we have this church called the Middle Eastern Presbyterian Fellowship.”

Brad Munroe, who’s pastor to both de Cristo and Grand Canyon presbyteries, called the level of violence from which immigrants seek to escape “visceral.” More reporting is needed on the violence, he said, but “it would get a hard R if not an X rating.”

A joy serving both presbyteries is that “I get to interact with socially progressive and more socially conservative” congregations, he said. “Some will do things that are against U.S. law without blinking, with no pushback. Other churches, if it conforms to U.S. law, they are all in, and they see this as a mission of compassion.”

He said he’s seen the discussion move from “caricature to conversation, and then from conversation to dialogue with depth.”

“I believe we need to be more direct and more intentional about sharing what we have learned from immigrant communities,” said the Rev. José Luis Casal, director of World Mission. “This is important for America, to say that we can learn. If we can help with this, let’s try to do it.”

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