'God Never Leaves'

Posted: 3/19/2015

That’s the message Father Francois Pellissier is sharing
with incarcerated men at two Georgia state prisons and
an immigration detention center. And the men are taking it to heart.

By Margaret Gabriel

When Father Francois Pellissier hears a news story about U.S. immigration policy, he doesn't think about political positions surrounding the issue, but instead thinks of the immigrant families he knows and ministers to in Georgia who are trying to achieve a better life in the United States.

Not long ago, for example, a couple arrived from Mexico—with travel visas—at a Georgia airport. When officials discovered an irregularity with their visas, they were separated and taken to different detention facilities. The husband was taken to the Stewart Detention Center, where he met Father Francois.

Although both husband and wife gave the same account of their travel, the wife's account was found not credible but the husband's was. "So now he's living in Massachusetts with their children and she's being deported," Father Francois says. "The immigration laws in the United States do not promote unity of the family—far from it!"

Father Francois is the first Glenmarian to serve full-time in outreach to the incarcerated. He fills his days visiting three South Georgia ministry sites—Pulaski State Prison, Rutledge State Prison and Stewart Detention Center—to provide the incarcerated with Bibles and a compassionate presence, as well as to share the sacraments, rosaries and scapulars with the Catholics he encounters. He calls it "bringing the Church to the people," and he does this oftentimes by just listening.

It's a ministry he embraces because "I want to be part of the search for a God who longs to be known at the end of a journey. I believe God is present at the detention center and in the prisons. God is longing to be discovered in the Word, the sacraments, and the hearts of the inmates."

Although he ministers to men in all three facilities, the bulk of his time is spent at the Stewart Detention Center located in Lumpkin, about 140 miles from Atlanta, where typically more than 80 percent of the detainees are Catholic. The detention center can hold up to 1,700 men, a population that fluctuates.

The privately owned and operated center incarcerates men with compromised immigration status who have been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. The majority of the rotating population of detainees typically face deportation. Others may move forward with legal processes that will allow them to remain in the United States.

The reasons the men are being detained vary. Some were stopped when they attempted to cross the border without appropriate visas, hoping to join their families or find work that would enable them to send money back home.

Others are seeking asylum to escape persecution in their home countries. And still others have criminal records or had their immigration status discovered after committing misdemeanor or traffic violations.

But Father Francois doesn't focus on their legal status or the severity of their violations. He sees all the detainees and state prisoners as children of God in need of spiritual and temporal assistance.

His ministry to both prisoners and the immigrant community is deeply rooted in Catholic social teaching, the fundamental starting point for which is the defense of human life and dignity. Every human person is created in the image and likeness of God and has an inviolable dignity, value and worth.

Catholic social teaching on immigration states that all people have a right to migrate to sustain themselves and their families, and countries have a right to regulate their borders and control immigration. But countries must uphold both of these rights with justice and mercy.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) uses the word "broken" to describe the current U.S. immigration system that stresses enforcement only. The USCCB continues to call on lawmakers to work for comprehensive immigration reform as a solution.

In 2014 Pope Francis said that "God is in everyone's life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person's life." Father Francois hopes his visits and ministry to detainees and prisoners help them see God in their lives, too.

At the detention center, though, it's difficult for him to establish ongoing relationships with those he visits because they are moved frequently. But he works diligently to remember each detainee's name and to learn something about each man's story.

He hopes his efforts will help give each man a sense of worth instead of a feeling that he has been forgotten by society and is only a head that is counted six times a day by facility guards.

For many of the Stewart detainees, all connections to the outside are lost. Even their family members may not know what their legal status is. Father Francois tries to help relay information to family members—he refers to himself as a "carrier pigeon"—through phone calls and letters. He also contacts families to obtain baptismal certificates for those who want to make first Communion, receive confirmation or get married. He says helping make all these connections is the best part of his ministry.

Fluent in French, English and Spanish, he is often asked to help translate legal documents. This is difficult, he says, because he's unfamiliar with some of the legal terminology. "But it's important work because I may be able to help detainees obtain immigration bonds." Bonds are given when money is put up to guarantee the detainees' presence at all court appointments and meetings with U.S. immigration authorities. As a result, the individuals may receive the time needed to complete the paperwork required to improve their legal status.

Also in his role as "connector," Father Francois is continuing to work with the couple who were separated upon their arrival in Georgia and has connected them with a pro bono attorney.

Although the wife is awaiting deportation (and has no idea when her return to Mexico might be scheduled), she has some hope that the decision regarding her status will be reversed and that she will then be able to rejoin her husband and children.

During the months he has ministered at the state prisons and at the Stewart Detention Center, Father Francois has observed what he describes as an "incredible experience in grace," as more men become involved in spiritual journeys.

"They've learned through praying and reading the Bible that God wants to be known and loved and celebrated. I had one man tell me at the detention center that ‘God is the only one I can trust. God never left me but I didn't know that until I came here.'"

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Learn more about the Catholic Church's position on migration and immigration by visiting www.justiceforimmigrants.org. The Web site, sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, also contains recent news, statements from U.S. bishops, and parish resources for education and action. Additional resources on restorative justice for prisoners and Catholic social teaching principles can be found at www.usccb.org.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 Glenmary Challenge.