notre dame montreal

Faith in Dention

by Reverend Larry Wright TSSF
Chaplain at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, Bedford.


Reflections on the first nine months of ministry at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre, Bedford

The penetrating siren screeches its warning: another fire drill. We wait until its piercing intrusion ceases and resume our conversation as we stand in the stark corridors of the unit for newly arrived detainees. “The peace of God be with you”; or, “As-Salaam-alaykum”, if they are Muslim. These ancient invocations of God’s peace are used frequently by members of the Multi-faith chaplaincy team at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre. As a greeting to vulnerable, bewildered, frightened or angry new arrivals it is not a casual remark; it is recognition that despite their situation faith and belief are as much part of life in the Centre as they are beyond its bars and razor wire.

My new ministry at Yarl’s Wood began in July 2004. Then, we were caring for the spiritual needs of 50 in one unit. Now we are caring for 250 in three units and by the end of this year 300-400 in five units. Yarl’s Wood is not a prison; detainees are not criminals being punished or rehabilitated. They are one of the human consequences of globalisation; a concept which I understand encompasses the inter-relatedness and disparity of international economics; the increasing use of migrant labour by richer nations; the activities of ‘people smugglers’ and the growing awareness of the number of people fleeing from corrupt or failing nations. All these factors have lead to a steadily rising number of migrants across the world (mainly between developing nations) and here Britain’s admirable tradition of welcoming migrants and refugees has been tested to the limit, it has had to adapt or risk being overwhelmed. Yarl’s Wood, along with seven other such institutions, are part of our governments’ response to the process of trying to adequately and humanely ‘manage migration’.

Each week I collate statistics on the nationality and religion of our residents. They are most likely to come from Africa, China, The Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. The statistics for religious affiliation show the largest group to be Christian (70%) with Islam next at (10%). We also have Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu and once had a Zoroastrian (the ancient religion of Persia/Iran). In fact, my weekly statistics have headings which begin with Agnostic and end with Zoroastrian. The most unusual religion encountered was a lady from a remote mountain area of Georgia (in former USSR) whose people were Sun worshippers

Faith within walls

How many of us prefer to locate our faith behind a convenient set of barriers so we are not easily recognised as Christians? In our society where religion is essentially a private affair we do not feel confident to talk of matters of belief; in Yarl’s Wood the reverse is true. Most detainees have an active and vibrant faith and their detention intensifies their religious experience. In detention they do not suffer the distractions of every day life; there is more time to think, pray, reflect and seek answers to their situation. Yarl’s Wood can feel like a school of prayer, indeed it is a place where prayer is powerfully present. With a large African population the exuberance, passion and sheer volume of the worship is something to behold. Our weekday services are accompanied by drumming, dancing, clapping and tambourines, also tears of despair and joy. It is also a place where the prayer spaces are sought out for their silence and serenity. They provide a sacred area where the fearful and anxious may sit for long periods in silent awareness of God, heartfelt prayer or contemplate their scriptures. In such an environment they experience a deepening dependence upon God and seek divine reassurance and enfolding.

Our Multi-faith team of 10 chaplains (working part-time or voluntarily) try to meet the varied spiritual needs of the detainees. In the course of an average week I see the Muslim Imam or Sisterhood members issuing headscarves and prayer mats to new arrivals; or our Hindu visitor ensuring the Hindu Mundir (shrine) in the World-Faiths room is kept clean and the offerings of fruit, incense and sweets refreshed; or, Pastor Lonnie Haye, our Pentecostal minister, playing a jazzy version of Amazing Grace on the digital piano to the delight of the crowded chapel. In February we hosted the Venerable Miao Gang, a Buddhist nun from the Fo Guang Temple in London, and six members of their lay community for the installation and blessing of our Buddhist shrine. However, as in parish life, worship and devotions are only a fraction of the work. The more challenging ministry is in the daily pastoral visits we make to detainees; the casual encounter in a corridor, the meal together in the dining room, the request for prayers in the room at night, the desperate tears of those loosing hope. Two particularly stubborn ‘demons’ seem to stalk the corridors of the Centre: nightmares and self-harm, arising from despair or dreadful memories. The personal histories of some we get to know are alarmingly consistent. They have suffered abuse, separation from family, the murder of relatives or the perilous journey to the West. Some take detention well and contribute their gifts willingly to the daily programme of learning and leisure activities; others turn in on themselves. Language is often a major obstacle – I wish I had paid more attention in French classes at school – fortunately many of the uniformed staff have other languages and detainees are quick to support each other.

Healing part of our work

We have developed a good working relationship with the health care staff on site, who recognise and appreciate the positive role religion can play when helping detainees settle in and cope with life in detention. In some serious cases of food or fluid refusal, self-harm or protest we are asked to speak with the person and offer some appropriate spiritual counsel or ritual act to help in the healing process. I am so grateful for the insights gained producing healing services which had integrity and relevance while working with our St John’s and St Mary’s prayer team members; many of the prayers and practices used in those services has transferred to Yarl’s Wood. Cultural differences have to be appreciated and the wisdom of other faiths on questions such as ‘why suffering?’ or ‘what is real freedom?’ have been illuminating.

As chaplains we have to appreciate the limitations of our involvement with detainees. We cannot give legal advice or offer direct assistance to their case. The Centre provides contact details of a range of advisory groups to help detainees and we can offer suggestions as which are the most appropriate in their case. Often we are more useful helping them to come to terms with their past or the uncertainty of their future; this too is part of a healing process. They may have stored up anger, bitterness, resentment or a sense of genuine injustice about their treatment; helping them to acknowledge and then deal with these feeling is a vital part of our ministry.

In February the family unit opened and for the first time we were confronted by the sight of young children and babies behind bars. This is an especially sensitive area of ministry for our team. Working with our heightened feelings for the families we must be ready to offer them our best counsel and support while recognising the emotional demands it makes upon us. It is not all tears and despair. The family unit has excellent facilities and children adapt, they are soon seen running, laughing and dancing around the unit and teasing the staff. Teachers and nursery nurses are there each day and activities staff provides family game periods and a youth club for older teenagers will be opening soon.

A Prayer for the end of the day at Yarl’s Wood

When my day at Yarl’s Wood is coming to an end I try to spend a few minutes in reflection and recollection. So much can happen and so many stories are told, I feel a religious obligation to hold those stories for a while before offering them to God in a closing prayer. I’m aware that most of the people we minister to we may never seen again and it seems the least we can do is remember their story of struggle and faith.

Eternal God,
You know the stories of struggle and hope encountered this day;
many offered in Your Holy name.
you know the lives of those who told their stories;
you formed them in their mother’s womb;
you know the depths of our human anguish;
your Christ bore it and your Spirit heals it.
God of compassion,
grant to those who were met today
trust in your abiding presence,
true grounds for hope,
faith enough for another day
and a peaceful rest this night.