Connection in Prayerful, Humble Silence
Leona Fernandes, a Novice with the Congregation of Jesus (CJs), reflects on the completion of her Noviceship Experiment (placement) with Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) as a Detention Centre Visitor at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre near Heathrow airport in London, UK.
In these strange times of COVID-19, I write this from the confines of my room where I have been for the past few days dealing with my symptoms, confident that what I have is mild and will soon pass, and grateful that by God’s grace I have all that I need.
That said, I feel called to reflect on the grace of connection in solidarity with all of our JRS friends.
In a detention centre where linguistic, cultural, and barbed-wire physical barriers exist, what communicates care, decency and solidarity? Small gestures of connection: the willingness to look someone in the eye, the offer of a welcoming smile, a listening ear in the face of distress, and even a single, gentle word of support.
All of these acts, particularly when undertaken with strangers, communicate the very presence, love, and support of God for each one of us.
Our JRS friends know and also model this for each other. In the open waiting area where the welfare visits take place, some detainees await the coveted legal visit, others negotiate the temperament of a security officer just to book a visit, and still others hang around in order to support friends with an English translation.
Through it all, I have noticed a tangible sense of fellowship and camaraderie among the detainees and a sincere compassion amid heaviness, worry, and fear.
Of those who arrive at the JRS welfare desk, most manage a smile, a genuine handshake and an openness to receive any assistance with their case. The connection is almost always immediate, joyful, and appreciated.
I have often been struck by the resilience of detainees in the face of the entanglement of paperwork (often written in ‘legalize’) and their perseverance in doing what is needed for today, even if that be just to wait.
I have seen in their faces hurt, disappointment, and frustration at the bureaucracy—but also hope and joy at the possibility of change. Sadly, I have also seen JRS friends with mental health issues who also cannot communicate in English. It is with these most vulnerable friends that sincere connection through eye contact and body language counts the most.
I am from Canada and perhaps my most heartbreaking moment was when I encountered a young detainee from North America, the only person from North America I had ever seen there in the UK Immigration Removal Centre.
He spoke like me and dressed like me and from the outside easily looked like any young man from my parish back home. He seemed disconnected, maybe even in shock as he had just arrived there. My heart just bled for him as I wondered to myself from deep within, ‘What are you doing here, brother?’
We sat, mostly in silence; he seemed too troubled to speak. I have learned that there’s little that can be said given the gravity of their circumstances. But I have also witnessed the strength and sanctity of prayerful, humble silence.
What this silence opens up is not empty… it is a safe space of connection in trust and accompaniment. It is a peace that enables both of us to enter into the grace of the present moment.
And in that present moment, if we are open to it, the opportunity exists to encounter God, whose grace is at work in the both of us for our mutual good and growth.
As we prepare to approach the sacred Cross this Holy Week, let us pause to reflect on the ways God may be calling us to connect with others, even if only possible from a distance and in silence.