For the last four years, Rev. Kelly Ryan has served within the four walls of Bethel Congregational Church in White Salmon and outside in the surrounding community.
Now, she’s getting ready to embark on her next adventure at a church in La Mesa, Calif., a small town just east of San Diego, so she and her husband can be closer to family.
But before she heads down south, Ryan will star in Cassandra Medley’s play, “Cell,” about three women working at an immigration detention center and how they emotionally and morally process their work.
“Part of the ‘cell’ piece is that it highlights in the storytelling how sometimes people are trapped in the roles that they find themselves in, perhaps in economics or something like that,” she said, “and so these characters are morally wrestling with some of the things they see while they’re working in this immigration detention center but they don’t have the option of quitting, or of saying ‘hey, what I’m seeing is unjust and wrong’ because then they would be fired and replaced by somebody else.”
Embodying the role of Gwen, a guard at the fictional detention center, was strangely familiar for Ryan due to her regular visits with those in immigration detention at NORCOR as a pastor, offering spiritual and emotional support as well as financial and legal help. “It’s been powerful, and troubling, and just very, very profound, working with people there,” she said.
What is strange about the role’s familiarity is that she has had very little contact from the staff when she visits NORCOR. “I hear from the people who are being held in detention there and they’re like ‘the staff are great. We think the policies are unjust here, but the staff are very good people,’” she said, “It’s an interesting sort of exercise to be in that particular role: People who I’ve never talked to but kind of hear from those in detention that these are just good humans trying to make a living as well, and trying to be as human as they can be in the parameters that they can work therein.”
The role has also made her more aware of just how economics factors into unethical decision making, she said, relating her character’s struggles between keeping a job with good benefits and the morality of that job to NORCOR’s contract with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“I think that’s a really difficult position to be in, because if they were to break that contract, the jail could not be financially sound,” she said, “I wonder how much that goes into decision making and that that might be the driving force for a lot of choices that are inhumane or unjust. Just follow the money.”
She and other local clergy began visiting the detention center in April 2017, after hearing from local organizers in The Dalles that those in immigration detention were going on a hunger strike due to poor conditions such as a lack of nourishing food, outdoor time and connections with family – especially compared to experiences at the neighboring Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. For example, Ryan said, the Tacoma center’s law library has materials on immigration law, while NORCOR’s law library is almost exclusively criminal law.
“There’s very different access to resources,” she said, “they (people in immigration detention at NORCOR) miss having other people who are in the same proceedings all around them, there’s a lot more isolation.”
Bethel became an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation (IWC) in January 2018, an official designation that requires participating congregations to go through a year-long process and commit to advocating on behalf of immigrants within the church and in the broader community.
The play’s co-directors, Medley and Gary Young, and the rest of the cast are all members of Ryan’s church; and she was excited to get back into the theater when they asked her to take part.
“I used to do a lot more theater stuff when I was younger, but I haven’t here ... but I wanted to make an exception for this because of the content because it seemed so relevant,” she said.
“It’s been very cool for me to see church members bringing some of this advocacy to their creative pursuits – it’s just such an emotional, powerful tool to use the emotional power of theater to draw attention to this, so I think it’s fun to get to do it with my church,” she said, “I’ve always felt like acting, there’s a spiritual discipline for it to me, just in terms of when you are taking on another character. It’s like this really incredible empathetic exercise,” she said.
Though she is excited to broaden her immigration justice work in California, Ryan admits she will miss her congregation and life in the Gorge.
“I’m going to miss the deep attention to craft that people have around here,” she said, “you can tell that they are really loving every detail of what they do and that there’s something that is more than just a job, it’s like a vocational craft, in offering just this really positive community place to gather … I think other places have that, but I think in the Gorge, in a small town, it’s so close, you know – like you know these people who are also crafting these things. There’s an intimacy there too that I think doesn’t exist in a lot of other places.”