Since January 2015, representatives of Northam Uniting Church have visited people detained at the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre.
The weekly visits to a few men have become a Bible study and support group for people from China, Sri Lanka, Iran, New Zealand, Fiji, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Some are Christians, some Muslim, some have a Hindu background. All speak English; some speak it well, some are beginner learners.
Body and sign language, as well as drawing pictures, are much needed extra means of communication. We talk about the Lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, so the men can get ready for church (a maximum of four people a week are allowed to go) or to prepare their own worship at the centre.
The readings are read and interpreted in the context of – indefinite for some – detention. They trigger childhood memories, comparison of how Christmas and other feasts are celebrated, stories about work and life in now far away countries, and accounts of how the men are treated while waiting for a visa or a day in court.
The men show photos of their family and treat us to self-baked cake and juice, bought with points they have earned by attending groups. No points are given for attending a ‘religious group.’
We laugh a lot together. We cry sometimes too.
At regular intervals during each night, an officer will open the door to each detainee’s room to check if they are still there. Some do so quietly; some officers are – by nature or deliberately – noisy.
No mobile phones are allowed for people who arrived by boat. Contact with the outside world, including wives and children, is limited to computer/Skype time. And yet, the people we meet are resilient enough to say things like: ‘I am not in prison; I am at a bus stop, waiting for a bus that has broken down. But it will come. One day it will come.’ Or: ‘I have everything I need: shelter, food, clothes, things to do, friends to do them with. Only one thing is missing: freedom.’
The men have taught us the word ‘hope’ in six languages we don’t speak. People ask, ‘why do you visit these people? They are (only) economic refugees, illegal immigrants, terrorists, criminals…’ They are not, of course, but even if they were, I am certain we would still visit.
Christians are not called to have faith and talk about it, quietly sitting on a fence. We are called into loving action. ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself ’ is neither some theoretical command, nor does it allow room to say, ‘some people are more our neighbour than others’. We are shown not to ride a high horse, but to prefer a donkey; told to visit people in detention/prison.
Jesus shows us in parables and stories, and even more so in action, the unconditional and compassionate love of God for all people. Jesus defies the rule of his day and eats with tax collectors and sinners, and heals the child of a Roman centurion. Act out of love for your neighbour, be they outcast or enemy.
Visiting Yongah Hill and offering sanctuary if and when needed is a little love in a little action. It’s taking a small stand; compared to the love that passes all human understanding we call God.
Rev Corina van Oostende
Rev Corina van Oostende is the minister at Northam Uniting Church. The Northam congregation has joined Wembley Downs Uniting Church, Margaret River Uniting Church and Uniting Church in the City, Wesley Perth, plus many other churches around Australia, in offering sanctuary to asylum seekers and refugees who are currently at risk of deportation. Find out more at http://www.acrt.com.au/.