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Presbyterian documentaries on immigration and refugees shown in Dayton

From mosques to the opera, the issue generates interest in Ohio city

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Sally Dyer, National Response Team member with PDA, speaks at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio at screening of PDA films on immigration detention and refugee resettlement. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE — The original idea was to simply schedule screenings of the most recent Presbyterian Disaster Assistance documentaries on immigration detention and refugee resettlement (Locked in a Box and To Breathe Free) at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton. What Sally Dyer didn’t realize, was a number of organizations across the city were planning their own awareness events around these issues.

Dyer, a National Response Team member with PDA, began hearing about other events scheduled for September and October. The Dayton International Peace Museum, University of Dayton, Dayton Opera, Peace Literacy Dayton – all planned activities such as talks, concerts, a presentation of The Consul, with a running theme around immigration and refugees.

“It began as a movie showing and eventually became a full-page ad in the Dayton Daily News,” said Dyer.  “All of these connections just came to be organically and we really felt the spirit was leading the way for this. It just grew and then we got our friends at the local mosque to schedule a screening of the films. It was just wonderful.”

Dyer began working with the other organizations to create an overall theme “Building Peace Through the Arts 2017.”

“Who would have ever thought that we would go to the arts community to find a connection around this topic?” asked Dyer. “The more people we talked to, the more people we heard from in the community that were interested. Catholic Social Services had a speaker coming in to speak on immigration for a speakers’ series, we had these films to show and the opera, community college and Peace Museum were all doing something. It just kind of morphed into this big deal.”

Dyer also credits Jerry Leggett, president and CEO of 21st Century Peace Literacy Foundation with helping bring the event together.

“I’ve been working for many years to create positive peacebuilding within communities,” he said. “How do the voices of the faith community get their powerful message heard in a world that doesn’t always come from that perspective? The challenge is creating a forum for people to come together and hear about immigration and detention.”

Both documentaries were shown as part of the Peace Literacy Dayton Film Forum.

“The core of what the Presbyterians are doing is to help people understand what it’s like to be ostracized and build a world where people have something to share,” said Leggett. “Dayton is unique in that we’ve brought together the opera, veterans and a range of people to explore peacebuilding together.”

The documentaries have already received high praise and recognition at various film festivals around the country. But PDA leaders believe scheduled showings at churches and other organizations often lead to action.

“We show our films at a film festival and people respond to it and then they go home.  In this case, everyone was here for the purpose of learning, but also to engage and do something, whether as a faith community or a college student who is interested in visitation ministry at detention centers,” said David Barnhart, PDA associate for Story Ministry and director of the films. “Everyone that came wanted to learn and do something. That’s the purpose of these films and exactly what we want them to do to be, a voice or medium to connect people and find their own way to engage with the issues.”

Barnhart recently attended several showings of the films in Dayton.

“At the mosque, people connected the film with their personal stories,” said Barnhart. “A lot of people were very moved by sharing that their uncles, aunts, mothers and fathers came here and dealt with the same kinds of struggles as those in the film.”

When she first saw “Locked In a Box” two years ago, Dyer said she had no idea how close to home the issue was.

“I got online and looked up to see if there were any detention centers near Dayton and found there was one about 30 minutes away. This is happening in my backyard.  That is not okay,” she said. “No one knew the facility existed and it was happening right now so close to home.”

“This is a level of engagement that is important, actually bringing people together in a room to watch it. We are called to bring people to church and have dialogue and share stories,” said Barnhart. “People get angry when they watch ‘Locked in a Box’ asking what they can do. They want to get involved and that’s the reaction you want. You want to encourage them to take action.”

Dyer is hopeful the series of events and film showings will lead to more hands-on ministry.

“There’s a lot of interest in possibly starting a visitation program at the facility in Hamilton, Ohio,” said Dyer. “We want to show the film again and continue to spread the word. We have these amazingly well-done films that inform and educate us.”

Dyer encourages churches in other communities to duplicate the success they’ve had in Dayton and incorporate other entities to raise awareness.

“Do some research in your own community to see who else might be involved in refugee resettlement or immigration issues and let them know about the film and see what develops from there. It could grow into something,” she adds. “I would have never thought about contacting the philharmonic or the opera to see if they have something going on around this topic. But now things have come together on immigration/refugees, and it has been just beautiful to watch.”


To access these films, visit the PDA website, or email

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is able to produce these film resources and respond quickly to emergencies because of gifts to the One Great Hour of Sharing.

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