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Visiting an ICE Detention Center

A stunning rainbow lights up the brooding sky above the Northwest Detention Center. It’s been more than a year since my friend was free. I want to see him before Christmas.

I walk past a barbed wire fence to the steel front door of the building. It turns out the guards had to recently replace it because an angry visitor pulled the old one off its hinges.

A mildly bored guard looks up as I walk to the counter.

“Did you know there’s a rainbow outside? It’s glorious!”

“Oh really? Man, I wish I could go see it. Who are you visiting today?”

“Joe Bayana.”

I hand over my ID and walk through a metal detector into the waiting area. Spiderman plays on a TV, interspersed with distracting ads. I can’t sit still and end up pacing the room, lost in thought.

The guards stop an older woman who has a bunch of gift bags for people in detention. She’s really confused about what is and isn’t allowed. You can’t bring items for detainees.

She insists on offering the gifts to visitors instead, resulting in a few awkward conversations as people try to politely get out of taking the baggies. You can’t fault her intentions at least.

Thirty minutes later I hear my cue, “Joe Bayana.”

I’m buzzed in through a second heavy steel door and enter the hallway, walking all the way to the very end to see a smiling Jojo waiting in the last booth.

He eagerly picks up the phone and raises the palm of his hand to the plexiglass as I press mine to the glass as well. It’s the closest thing to a handshake, high five or a hug.

“How are you? It’s so good to see you!”

“I’m well, Jojo! Merry Christmas! How are you?”

“I am doing well, and I’m so grateful. God is good! I’m in good health.”

We exchange several minutes worth of pleasantries before he tells me his immigration case has been filed with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I didn’t realize I would be suing William Barr!” He chuckles.

Suing the US Attorney General is quite a milestone and it’s good that Jojo’s lawyer has gotten him this far.

“Maybe Bayana v Barr will become a widely cited case that can help a lot of people!”

I share with him an Alexa skill and webpage I made with people from church. Since the ICE visitation rules are rather convoluted, these tools make it easier for people to know exactly when they can visit people at the detention center.

Jojo tears up a bit.

“I’m so loved by my Union Church family.”

The big batches of letters and cards he gets are the envy of other detainees. He always tells them, “What’s wrong? This is from my family!” Several people who’ve known Jojo in detention and been released have joined his family too.

In fact, I think everyone, the guards and detainees, know about his family. Jojo, no stranger to Scripture, even called out the resemblance to the Apostle Paul’s description of his time in prison in the letter to the Philippians.

Our conversation turns to the Christmas Eve service we’re preparing for and the different languages that will be included using spf.io.

He starts teaching me phrases and words in Zulu and the difference between various languages spoken in southern Africa. I do pretty well until he gets to the clicks!

How do you make a consonant sound while clicking your tongue at the same time?

I try to repeat after him, but give up after the fourth try. He wants to keep going.

Jojo switches to counting in Japanese, making punching motions that he learned from Karate.

I heartily join in.

“See, languages can always be understood,” he says, smiling broadly.

Next he asks to sing with me, “for our spirits,” he says.

“What do you want to sing?”

“How about ‘Joy to the World’?”

As an introvert, I’m kind of embarrassed to sing aloud with other visitors and detainees around to listen, but I shrug off my self-consciousness and sing in a soft baritone…

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”

Jojo joins in, at first with the words he knows, then switching to deep soulful humming, eyes closed, head shaking to the rhythm. His hands sway to the beat and he looks as if he’s about to dance.

He starts harmonizing, gracing my melody with spirited, jazzy flourishes–heartfelt improv.

We finish and he opens his eyes.

“Even when we don’t know the words, we can hum and our spirits can have–we can connect even if we don’t know the language.”

I feel simultaneously moved and awkward, noticing again the resemblance to Paul singing in prison.

My eyes start getting puffy and I suggest we pray.

He asks how he can pray for me so I share something personal which he warmly receives and affirms. And when he prays for me, I can’t hold back the tears that were freed by genuine love.

He mentions how grateful he is to be remembered and visited by a friend.

I pray for him too. We part ways with a “Merry Christmas”.

By Chris Lim

I'm the founder of TheoTech (www.theotech.org), a company activating a movement of Technology Entrepreneurship for the Gospel. This means beginning with God as the Customer and working backwards to invent products that deliver outcomes He desires. I created Ceaseless (ceaselessprayer.com) and SPF.IO (spf.io) as two examples of this principle in action. I'd love to connect if you're passionate about using the best business and technology have to offer to advance God's Kingdom.

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