A Hunger Strike, Detention, and the Bread of Life
“I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.”
– Brian Zahnd
While we all live with a certain degree of pain and brokenness, the extent to which the gospel is good news for us is greatly affected by our level of comfort. My experience with those who live in conditions of material vulnerability is that they comprehend the Bible at a level that is inaccessible to me. Comfort, in this way, is the assassin of the gospel. We cannot understand the gospel’s power as good news unless we submit ourselves to communion with those who are vulnerable. It is only through sitting at their table that we can savor the bread of life1 in its fullness.
This past May I was invited to just such a communion by Ramón Mendoza, one of the leaders of the hunger strike that took place at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Wash., during March and April of this year. Ramón spent over 40 days fasting, 30 of which were in solitary confinement due to an unfair accusation of “incitation”—a charge that resulted from an “internal hearing” from which his lawyer was excluded.
Two aspects about the NWDC will help you appreciate the depth of Ramón’s disempowerment. First, detention of migrants is administrative; it does not follow a specific charge or a trial, and it is indefinite,2 lasting from a couple of months to several years. Second, detention centers are privately run by the GEO Group, a corporation that has lobbied aggressively to create the policies that lead to detention of immigrants and that provides the services on the other end. GEO made more than $1.5 billion in revenue in 2013, 16 percent of which comes from their contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Migrant detainees are subject to social isolation, poor medical care, excessive fees for phone calls and basic goods, and various means of retaliation as a response to reasonable complaints.
After several months in detention, away from his wife and three children and subject to abusive treatment, Ramón decided to fast to draw attention to the inhumane conditions of thousands of migrant detainees. Retaliation was quick to follow, and he spent 30 days in solitary confinement.
I asked him what he did all day in the “hole.”
“I read the Bible,” he responded.
“Why the Bible?” I asked.
“Because it resonated with what I was going through.”
“I read it all.”
Ramón told me how he prayed each night to ask God the next step for the following day. Sometimes he felt like giving up, but he found encouragement from Scripture at key times in his journey.
“By day 15, I was getting discouraged, not being able to communicate with anyone, and on top of that I wasn’t eating… One feels, well, despair, and I read the part where Jesus fasted for 40 days, and that invited me to say, ‘I have fasted for 15 days, and I am complaining—he pulled it off for 40!’ That helped me keep going. Another reading I remember from those 30 days is when Jesus was taken to be crucified. He never, never objected to what was being done to him, and I was going through something similar in here, and that gave me peace… [the officers] do whatever they want with us, and unfortunately no one outside knows what happens in here… Those are but a few things that I realized by reading the Bible.”
Despite GEO’s attempt to curtail the hunger strike by having medical staff misinform detainees about the health consequences of fasting and lying to the women by telling them that “99 percent of the men had resumed eating,”3 Ramón and his friends’ attempt to draw attention to their conditions was successful enough to have Rep. Adam Smith propose a bill to ensure accountability of immigration detention. We can only hope this bill will be passed and offer some relief to migrant detainees. But improving conditions does not make it right to deny someone’s freedom for administrative purposes. What we need are alternatives to detention.
At the core of Ramón’s action, however, we do not find political activism, although the strike brought about hope for political change. What we find instead is a prophetic attitude of, in the words of Jacques Ellul, “the affirmation of a spiritual truth against the error of the moment.”4 The truth is that migrant detainees are created in God’s image and made free by Jesus’ restorative power. This is the good news—that no matter who wants to profit from their vulnerability, their humanity is defined by God’s love.
“I refused to be an object,” Ramón told me.
It is only through complete vulnerability that the good news becomes a matter of life and death, and as such this good news realizes its transformative power in the world. Once we have attempted to see the gospel the way the vulnerable see it, there is no turning back—I can no longer domesticate the Word of God. I am faced, instead, with that which is real and at the same time ungraspable. Further, it demands that I give up my own understanding of the world—namely, my cynicism, the safety of sociological theories of power and of social technique—and be left bewildered yet hopeful.
Ramón is still detained. Yet in the darkness of detention, away from his family, he knows the Bible is speaking to him.
(Editor’s note: endnotes for this article are posted at PRISMmagazine.org/endnotes.)
A native of Chile, Maria-José Soerens is a licensed mental health counselor who works with undocumented migrants and their families in Washington State. She is the founder of Puentes: Advocacy, Counseling & Education (PuentesSeattle.org) and currently teaches in the master’s in theological studies program at Centro de Estudios Teologicos Interdisicplinarios.