Immigration Detention: Rev. John Gutterman Lives Out Faith Through 'Conversations with Friends' | LIRS
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Immigration Detention: Rev. John Gutterman Lives Out Faith Through ‘Conversations with Friends’

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210px-Jail_Bars_Icon.svgThrough this blog, I have the opportunity not only to share my voice, but also to lift up the voices of others standing for welcome at LIRS and throughout the nation.  Today, I’d like to introduce an interview by Luke Telander, Program Associate for Outreach at LIRS. He speaks with Rev. John Guttermann, Covenant Minister at United Church in Christ in New Brighton, Lead at Conversations with Friends, and Advocacy Lead for the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration, MN.

Matthew 23:35 reads, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” and all over the country, faith communities and leaders are heeding this scriptural call to action and standing for welcome.  This year more than ever before, faith groups are understanding that the way to truly uphold justice and mercy is by welcoming the stranger and  supporting comprehensive immigration reform.

One of the most effective ways faith leaders are doing this is through detention visitation ministries.  Leaders like Rev. John Guttermann of the United Church in Christ in New Brighton, MN are mobilizing volunteers to visit and give hope to detained immigrants who often have nowhere else to turn for solace.  I was lucky enough to talk with him about his life and work.  Here are his thoughts: 

Luke Telander (LT): What experience first drove you to get involved with detention visitation? 

Rev. John Guttermann (JG): In 2006, both of my parents died while I was serving in a difficult interim pastorate. I eventually resigned from my position and began what I thought would be three month voluntary sabbatical.  I took classes (including an anti-racism class), read, rested, enjoyed being home, began attending a variety of meetings and events related to ‘social justice,’ and eventually signed up for a social justice trip to Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico, with a group from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.  It was the first time I had traveled to a 2/3rd world country.  I worked hard to prepare, read all that was required and more.  While there we met with justice advocates and organizers; met with Zapatista communities; visited the village of Acteal where right-wing paramilitaries murdered 45 men, women, and children; listened, discussed, and learned.  Above all I heard the people we met with telling me that my response to their stories should not be an attempt to return to help them, but required that I find a way to serve and share their stories within my own community. 

Soon after returning home I received a notice of an immigrant rights march in Minneapolis.  Not quite knowing what it was, I participated, and in doing so discovered that the people the I met with in Chiapas were here: until that march, I had not seen or paid attention to the immigrants among us.

Soon I met with four other United Church of Christ pastors around one of their dining room tables.  We began learning about immigrant detention and rather naively said, “We should visit them,” only to learn that outside of their attorneys, immigrant detainees had no right to be visited, and our clergy collars did not grant us the privilege of being a visitor to immigrant detainees.  My response was to become the lead person working to gain that permission and to begin a visitation program.

LT: How does your work advocating for immigrant rights reflect your religious beliefs? 

JG: I read, listen to, and hear Biblical narratives with a different eyes and ears from what I used to.  The Levitical text, ”treat the aliens among you as the citizen”, the Matthean text “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” the birth narratives as migration stories  – all texts and themes that were once peripheral to me have become core texts that now frame my faith stance in the world.  For me, Scripture now has a harder, more demanding edge – it evokes more passion and demands that I respond with more commitment.

LT: What is the number one misconception about immigration detention in America today? 

JG: I do not think enough people are aware of detention for there to be any kind of general misconception.  For those who are aware, and who are not like me in their involvement, it is the belief that incarceration of immigrants of protects us from criminals.  I use ‘incarceration’ intentionally because ‘detention’ is too benign a word for the experience of immigrants held by ICE.

LT: You work with the Interfaith Immigration Coalition in Minneapolis.  How has working with people from diverse backgrounds and faiths strengthened your work?

JG: I think interfaith work strengthens the integrity of all faith work.  In the world’s (not just the United States’) mosaic of faith cultures, I question the validity of uni-faith work.   Interfaith work provides checks and balances to arrogance and helps keep our efforts honest.  It is a reminder that we are not all the same and do not need to be the same to be faithful and do what is faithful by the lights of our different traditions.  And we are all here together.  It teaches that we can have faithful boundaries and mutual respect through shared service.  But it is hard – I do not do it especially well, I am lucky in that there are multiple existing interfaith networks in my area.  I just keep showing up and trying.

LT: How have you seen visitation programs make a difference in the lives of detainees?

JG: That has been difficult to assess.  We do a very small thing – meet and offer ourselves for compassionate conversation.  We are seldom able to follow or do multiple meetings with the same individual throughout their incarceration.  I think making a difference means many different things: we offer a safe place for immigrant detainees to declare their frustrations and complaints, though we are unable to do anything about those frustrations and complaints.  I think the safe space for doing that makes a difference.  We are sometimes asked “why are you here?’ or “why are you doing this?” and our simple response is that we care and want them to know they are not alone.  And after a visit it is often those who asked “why” who express their appreciation and request that we come back.

LT: How can individuals and congregations of all faiths get involved in visitation programs?


  1. As a volunteer willing to commit to be trained, back ground checked, and be a visitor for at least 6 months.
  2. By offering prayer for the detained immigrants as a routine part of their worship.
  3. By offering prayer for those who are visiting.
  4. By praying for the corrections officers and ICE officers.
  5. By bringing programs about immigration and our detention –deportation system to their faith nand community organizations.
  6. By connecting with those who are advocating for immigration reform.
  7. By donating to organizations that are supporting immigrants and the campaign for reform.

LT: What is the number one thing about our detention system that you would like changed through the current immigration reform efforts?

JG: That each immigrant person being considered for detention should receive an independent hearing before an impartial judge who has the power to make an independent assessment of the immigrant and their situation and has access to resources that support alternatives to detention.

LT: What gives you the most hope for the possibility of real reform of our immigration detention system?

JG: The fact that there is finally a bipartisan conversation about immigration reform in the congress is a hope.  That the detention system is so resource intensive, so draining of money and energy, and so wasteful and hurtful of people is well documented, and is leading many across the political spectrum to call for change is also a hope.

I have to add that I think people of faith are “more there” on this issue than they were in 2010 when I first became a part of the effort to drive our nation to reform our immigration system.   But I am discouraged because detention system reform is still a less well known subset of the immigration reform campaign and the mantra of “security” seems to dominate the discussion among the general public both inside and outside of faith communities.


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