My church family– the people I love and serve week in and week out– are not like me. We don’t share the same primary language (church is a mix of French, English, Portuguese, and Lingala), we’re not the same shade of skin, we are not citizens of the same country, and only one of us (me) grew up a person of privilege.
With all our differences, they’re still “my people”. They love me, they have accepted me, they have grafted me into the African community, and they are my family.
I guess you could say it’s not so much they’re mine, but that I’m theirs.
I love being with them, worshiping with them, and helping them adapt to the new world they’ve found themselves in, though working in a new cultural context took some getting used to for both my wife and I. I still remember the day we realized it was a term of respect to call any elder “Mama” and “Papa”, a new cultural norm which has completely negated my tendency to be horrible with names. However, for these egalitarians it definitely took a period of assimilation to get used to the fact that my wife is not simply “Mama”, but “Mama Benjamin” or “Mama Pastor” as an additional sign of affection and respect.
With each passing week, we grow to love “our people” more and more as we assimilate ourselves into life as part of a sizable community of refugees and asylum seekers. In the months that we have been a part of this community, we’ve learned so much about them, but also learned so much about other ways of experiencing church.
“Worship” isn’t 3 songs before the sermon and one song after the sermon, but is a period of at least an hour to an hour and a half before anyone gets up to preach. “Sermons” aren’t 22 minute homilies, but rather an hour long energy-infused experience. Giving tithes and offerings is a time when even the old men dance with joy down the isle to put their spare change in the plate, and the things they give thanks for during the “testimony” time are so very different than what you’d hear outside the community.
You see, my church family comes from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Burundi and Rwanda. They not here to “milk the system” but to seek asylum because they would face political or religious persecution– even death– if they were to ever return home.
They aren’t here because they don’t want to go home; they’re here because they’ll die if they do.
Some, didn’t even make it this far. It is not uncommon for family units to be missing a parent/spouse who simply “isn’t here” (a term that I respectfully leave alone instead of probing).
While many of them are professionals (in my church we have medical doctors and judges), the cards are legally stacked against them while seeking asylum as they are forbidden from working for a period of about six months. Unlike those who have full refugee status, opening the door to many benefits to help start life over, those seeking asylum do not have access to many of these programs. Thankfully, in my state of Maine, we have state and local benefits which provide a small amount of food stamps and occasional government housing while individuals have their cases adjudicated to receive full refugee status.
Unfortunately, my church community faces oppression in their new home as well as their old. This past week, my Tea Party Governor Paul LePage (AKA: “America’s Craziest Governor“) who ran on the promise that he’d “tell Obama to go to hell“, jokes about rape, and who clearly ate too many paint chips as a child, has now determined that my church community is next on his list.
In a clear move to solidify his base going into re-election mode, LePage has declared that my church community of asylum seekers are “illegal immigrants”, and is attempting to shut down all state funding for them, and the towns who help them, saying that “Maine is no longer a sanctuary state“.
But here’s the problem: asylum seekers are not “illegal”. They come to the United States with passports and visas, legally. They file for asylum, legally. They remain here while they await being granted refugee status, legally.
My church is not “illegal”. Unfortunately, Tea Party xenophobes don’t care about tricky things like “facts”, such as the fact that it’s not illegal for someone to seek asylum in the United States when they are at risk of persecution and death if sent back to their homeland.
Thankfully, leaders across my state are vowing to disobey the governor’s new rule (which the AG is calling illegal and unconstitutional) from local mayors up to our attorney general. However, there is no telling how this will play out or what stunts the governor might pull in an effort to oppress our asylum and refugee population. The blood of immigrants is clearly something that would solidify his re-election bid with tea party conservatives, so I can’t imagine he’s going to accept the mayoral rebellion quietly.
Think your church has problems?
If my governor wins this battle, I have no idea how my church will eat, or where they will sleep. They’ll be forbidden from working, but will have the small safety net that exists ripped from them.
Please pray for them, pray for justice, and pray that God will not turn a blind eye.