The Rev. John Guttermann was talking with fellow pastors in 2010 when the conversation turned to the isolation immigrants face in detention.
“We should visit them,” Guttermann said. He soon found out that wasn’t quite so simple.
Guttermann went on to develop one of the country’s first visitation programs for detained immigrants. He helped spearhead a national visitation movement that now boasts programs in 19 states. Guttermann died late last month after a battle with brain cancer. He was 69.
“John brought love, hope and compassion into one of the darkest and loneliest systems in our country,” said Christina Fialho, co-founder of the Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement network (CIVIC) to which Guttermann’s Conversations with Friends belonged.
Guttermann, of New Brighton, is survived by his wife, Dawn Schilling.
Guttermann was born in San Francisco and grew up in St. Paul. A graduate of the University of Minnesota and the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, he was a longtime United Church of Christ pastor. He was also an avid reader, traveler and outdoorsman, who hiked to the base camp of Everest and Annapurna, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and went on long-distance cycling trips.
He was working as an interim pastor in southern Minnesota when he lost both of his parents in 2006. He decided to take some time off to regroup and travel. He went on a learning trip to Chiapas, Mexico, with a group from the Twin Cities seminary. Later, he and Schilling went on a similar trip to Guatemala. In both countries, Guttermann met with activists and members of indigenous communities, and learned about what propelled people across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Guttermann returned with a deep interest in immigration issues and came to feel for immigrants awaiting immigration court hearings or deportation in detention, often far away from families. He started Conversations with Friends in 2011, bringing community volunteers to meet with detainees in two classrooms at Ramsey County Adult Detention Center twice a month. In 2015, the program expanded to Freeborn County.
Steve Kraemer, a volunteer with the program who took over as its director, estimates more than 800 detainees received visits through Conversations with Friends — from people brought here as children to immigrants who had served sentences after felony convictions. “We are not a Bible study,” said Kraemer. “We’re not Alcoholics Anonymous. We’re not English as a second language. We are there to provide comfort and let people know they are not alone.”
In tandem with Linus Chan of the University of Minnesota’s Detainee Rights Clinic, Guttermann’s program provided clothes, food, shelter and transportation to newly released immigrants. To Chan, Guttermann was a “steadfast ally.” He started a letter-writing initiative and a Circle of Compassion, in which metro churches included immigrants in detention in their prayers.
Guttermann cultivated productive relationships with sheriff’s offices and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who contacted him about upcoming releases.
“He was driven and on a personal mission to connect with the folks in our custody,” said Ramsey County Undersheriff Joe Paget, whose department wrote Guttermann a letter of recommendation for the Freeborn County expansion. “It’s a lonely existence in there.”
His collaborative spirit impressed Fialho of CIVIC when she sought guidance to start a similar program in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the time, Conversations with Friends was one of four such programs nationally. Guttermann was a key partner in launching CIVIC, which now counts visitation programs at 43 facilities.
California Rep. Judy Chu’s office has granted him a Congressional Certificate of Recognition. Guttermann has also been recognized by the U’s Center for New Americans and the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights, where he was a longtime volunteer.
“Working with John was really extraordinary,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director at the organization. “He took a complicated idea about immigration and connected it to his faith and his energy.”