The Rev. Ramon Collazo is a second-career pastor from Puerto Rico who ministers to immigrants in detention. It’s one way he channels his passion for immigration reform and raising awareness about human rights.
Quickly after finishing his time at United Lutheran Seminary (formerly, Luther Theological Seminary at Philadelphia), Collazo received a call to serve as mission developer for a new Synodically Authorized Worshiping Community (SAWC) called Santa Isabel Ministry to Immigrants in Detention. This ministry focuses on providing spiritual care and hope for Puerto Rican and immigrant inmates at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey.
One mission starts another
The Iglesia Luterana Santa Isabel Latino Mission congregation in Elizabeth launched the SAWC in 2015. Itself a mission congregation — sponsored by the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — Santa Isabel started the new detention ministry SAWC as one way to care and advocate for immigrants and their rights. The congregation also hosts a citizenship drive twice a year and collaborates with the New Jersey Coalition for Justice.
The Elizabeth Detention Center is specifically designed for immigrants who either do not have proper identification of their citizenship or have committed a minor crime. It holds male and female citizens of multiple countries from Latin America, Europe and Asia. Collazo first became active in this detention ministry when he was invited to provide prayer during a rally outside its walls.
Ministry in detention
Collazo brings a unique voice to this ministry, which centers on doing intentional work to help and share the gospel with its immigrant community and other detainees. He hosts two worship services each week. Each service typically has 50 to 100 participants in worship, Bible study and prayer. Collazo also spends time offering prayer over specific requests or distributing rosaries and Bibles.
On December 27, 2018, Collazo gathered together a few ministry members to bring the Puerto Rican Christmastime music tradition of Parranda to the detention center’s residents. “We gathered not in a porch, but in a conference room, with guitar and cuatro puertorriqueño (a guitar-like instrument) to practice. We began the Parranda to the dorms, where we surprised the men and women with ‘Feliz Navidad’ and other songs.” Collazo could feel the joy this activity created in the residents as well as a strong sense of unity where it would normally be absent during Christmastime in the detention facility.
Raising awareness of immigration reform
Collazo has learned much from hearing the stories of people who have tried to flee from oppression but then had to face the harsh reality of being forced to return to the situations from which they fled. He believes, “If we don’t watch the news and don’t put ourselves in their shoes, nothing will change.”
He points out that the reality is that change does not always happen from institutions, it happens through people who are willing to advocate and show empathy to those who are hurting. “It has to come from God, and it has to come from our hearts because we love God and are called to serve our neighbors.”
Touching the hearts of people is where we meet the authentic work of the gospel. Collazo is living this out wholeheartedly and invites fellow congregations to pray for those affected by immigration policies.
by Blake Thomas, Congregational Vitality Team