On Friday afternoon, August 3, the voices of about 30 congregants could be heard inside the sanctuary at Myers Park Baptist Church in south Charlotte. In unison, the voices sang, "Somebody's hurting our brother, and we're not going to be silent anymore."
That somebody is Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, acting on orders from President Trump's administration, and Ben Boswell, senior minister at Myers Park, is done being silent about it.
After Friday's prayer vigil at the church, Boswell and his associate minister Chrissy Tatum Williamson led a group of 27 people to Lumpkin, Georgia, where they formed a prayer chain outside of the Stewart Detention Center, an infamous private prison run by ICE that houses immigrant detainees awaiting deportation.
The trip was part of the church's Awakening series, a project thought up by Williamson in which church members study a social justice issue throughout the year, then end their studies with a pilgrimage of sorts. Last year, after studying racial issues in America, participating members toured through the Deep South.
This year's focus on immigration issues was inspired by an experience Boswell had with Gilles Bikindou, a member of his former church in Cary. Bikindou was a Congolese resident who had lived and worked in the United States for 10 years. In January, he was detained during a routine check up at his local ICE office and eventually deported back to Congo, where he had once been witness to a murder and felt his life was in danger.
Boswell decided this year's pilgrimage would follow the path of Bikindou and countless others who have suffered similar fates, from the ICE office in Charlotte to the York County Detention Center in South Carolina and finally to Stewart Detention Center.
"When we saw his path and the inhumanity of the path that he experienced and the secrecy of it and how quiet it was and how nobody could get to him ... we knew that there was something secretive and inhumane and immoral about what's going on that we need to shed light on, that we need to bear witness to as people of faith and to tell the truth to the world about what's happening in our own community," Boswell said on Friday. "Friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters who are from other countries are being detained and they're disappearing, and we need to be able to tell that story."
The group also stopped in Atlanta to meet with representatives of refugee and immigrant advocacy groups and Baptist cooperative fellowships to discuss the Sanctuary Movement, a religious and political campaign in the 1980s that offered sanctuary to undocumented immigrants fleeing wars in Central America. During Trump's administration, more than 800 faith communities have come together across the country to form the New Sanctuary Movement.
For Williamson, it's all the more important for churches like hers to speak up as evangelists and politicians spouting off about religious values have been largely silent in the face of Trump's "Zero Tolerance" immigration policies.
"As a religious person, I think one of the central tenets of our faith is to love our neighbors, Williamson said. "So when I think about what does that look like played out in public life, it's certainly not ripping children from parents, it's not locking people up who are in search of survival or fleeing violence or domestic violence or gang situations or no economic opportunity.
"The tricky spot we're in right now has emerged from the religious right using itself as a political movement to different politicians, and so the message of Christ in my opinion has been deluded and has become a political message that's co-opted by the Republican Party," she continued. "So I think it's important for Christians on all sides of the political spectrum to speak out about how we interpret text and how God is telling us to live in the world. And I think some more progressive Christians have lost our public voice and it's time to reclaim that."
Cynthia Aziz, an immigration lawyer from Charlotte, spoke at Friday's prayer vigil. While she said she wouldn't be joining the group on their trip to Georgia, she said she would be with them in spirit.
"I've practiced immigration law for almost 30 years and it's a conversation that I've had with people about immigration for years, and I was excited to see that people now really care and want to see what's really happening," Aziz said. "It's sad that it's taken this kind of atrocity at our borders to get people's attention, but this movement, this prayer pilgrimage really means a lot, even to people that don't know they're doing it."