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Easter in detention


Razor wireOver many years I have celebrated Christmas and Easter in places where people are locked up — in refugee camps, prisons and detention centres. To be in these places at such times is hard. It is also a privilege.

Easter and Christmas are hard times precisely because in my own religious tradition and more diffusely in Western cultures, these are times of celebration. For Christians, Christmas is about a birth that makes all the difference to life. Easter is about a rising from the dead that makes all the difference to death. Both are celebrations of exuberant, sprawling, unexpected life, the stuff of families at high tide.

For people who are locked up by another group of people Christmas and Easter are not times of celebration. Dressed turkey simply reminds you that you are the turkey. They are times of grief for Christmases past, for Easters never enjoyed, for forced absence from the people who nurture life, for lives that seem wasted, for a more innocent time when it seemed that life itself was a blessing.

These are places where grief, anger and separation breed depression; where to be told stories of freedom and compassion only makes your present life the more intolerable. It is hard to be with people in times of such compounded misery.

But places of imprisonment are also privileged places to be in at Easter and Christmas. There I am put in touch with the reality that prisoners and detainees are not problems, monsters or examples of depression and oppression, but my fellow human beings who are doing it hard.

My presence, no matter how ineffective it is in changing people's circumstances, may not be totally ineffectual. It may encourage people to believe that they and their simple humanity matter.

I am also constantly surprised and encouraged by the resilience of people whose life journey has been full of tragedy and rejection, and by the awkward kindnesses of those who are responsible for keeping them locked up. When I meet Ahmed and Steve rather than the stereotypes of asylum seeker and officer, I come away with a deeper respect for human possibility.

For a Christian minister, too, these are privileged places because here the stories of Christmas and Easter come alive. The core of both stories is the experience of displacement, abandonment and the need to wrestle with the distance of God. The wonder of birth and victory over death is fully appreciated only when seen in this context.

In prisons and detention centres chaplains are subject to security procedures just as are the prisoners, and the surroundings and the inner turmoil suffered by so many of those detained test the currency in which I speak of the hope of Christmas and Easter. I have the stringent comfort of recognising my own little faith.

I find Immigration Detention Centres harder to visit at Easter than prisons. For that reason they may be more privileged places. The Negro Spiritual that is much sung on Good Friday asks, 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?' The question can be asked in two ways. Were you faithful during this hard time? And did you have a hand in nailing and raising the body on the cross?

Both these questions are poignant and challenging for any Australian citizen working in a detention centre. Constancy is an aspiration never fully achieved. And as an Australian living in a democracy, I know that I bear some responsibility for the policies of our government and their consequences.

When visiting detention centres I can never dissociate myself from the brutality, cowardice and expediency on display in the policies of detention and in their effects on people. As I tell the story of Jesus' trial and killing, I identify naturally with Caiphas' remark that it is expedient that one man should die for the people, and with Peter's dissociation of himself from Jesus as someone no longer like us.

But this discomfort is also a privilege. It means I cannot take Easter for granted. The inescapable necessities both of myself as chaplain and of the asylum seekers whom I visit are caught up in the promise of life, reconciliation and freedom expressed in Easter. Out of such a promise is bred constancy in insisting that there is a better way, and that people imprisoned should never be abandoned. 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Easter, detention centres



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Existing comments

Oh, thank you Andy. Thank you for breathing some reality into the truth of the human condition. All we who are trapped or imprisoned in some way can glimpse hope again when we see the face of reality - that is compassion. goodness. God. - through the fogs of suffering and pain around us. Your article puts words on the faithfulness, the never-ending mercy and love, of the One we call God, who never abandons humanity.

Pirrial Clift | 05 April 2012  

Thanks Andrew. Detention centres are difficult places - standing with those who are hurting is a great responsibility and privilege. I visited a friend this morning - an elderly lady I see when I can (inadequate phrase) who lives in a retirement village in our town. She's in a sort of detention too. We had a laugh and talked about my family and her beautiful tapestry work.

Pam | 05 April 2012  

Your personal story, Andy, will validate all those who walk with people in our community who are locked up and locked out. Easter blessings.

Jo dallimore | 05 April 2012  

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AHMAN ADAM | 05 April 2012  

Thanks Andy. A beautiful meditation and personal sharing that challenges me to deepen my appreciation that people and their simple humanity matter. You have helped to put words on the satisfaction I often feel, here in Brasil, used as an instrument of hope for others.

Johanna de Bont | 06 April 2012  

Your reflection lifts Easter out of the banality that surrounds it to its true meaning. Thank you.

Anonymous | 06 April 2012  

This piece is the first I have read that highlights the difference between correctional imprisonment and refugee detention, two different worlds that can never meet. Those in the former have inflicted distress on others while the latter have been victims of distress. Imprisonment is justly deserved, detention is unjustly imposed. I can understand, Andrew, how you find that celebrating the great Christian feasts is a more poignant experience in a detention centre than in a prison.

john frawley | 06 April 2012  

My experience of working with youth in the prison system and adults in Roebourne prison has been profoundly moving and painful, touching a deep sense of sadness and regret in me. A sense, that accompanying those whose right to walk this land and live their culture was taken from them and collectively we are all responsible for the sins of the fathers. So too, I believe that the 'promise of life, reconciliation and freedom expressed in Easter', is there to attend to the past and future. No simple black and white between those detained and those imprisoned for me, John Frawley.

jo dallimore | 06 April 2012  

An insightful and touching read, Andy. An interesting take on the Easter message too.

Carmen Main | 06 April 2012  

Thank you, Dr Hamilton. I've always been embarrassed at the paucity of my efforts to reach out to and help others. However, you have eloquently affirmed the value of individual efforts that, if nothing else, might help the oppressed to know they really do matter.

Patricia | 07 April 2012  

Thank you "Above all, do not be a bystander."

Deborah Zion | 07 April 2012  

I spent this Easter up in Darwin, holding the hands of two young girls who had traveled on their own from Vietnam. I reached out to them through the fence while countless police and guards tried their hardest to keep us from each other. While heartbreaking to watch them forced away from the fence I still feel the anguish in that grasp and hope they received some comfort from the touch of a kind stranger.

Victoria Martin | 10 April 2012  

Great Post, I love to read articles that are informative and actually have <a href="http://www.webzemini.com/">good content</a>. Thank you for sharing your experiences and I look forward to reading more.

Josef Jones | 03 May 2012  

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