What This Means to Me
Over this spring and summer (2020), our Immigrant Housing and Accompaniment Team (I-HAT) has teamed up with the Seacoast Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition (SISC) and the UCC’s Immigrant and Refugee Support Group (IRSG) to advocate for immigrants and refugees in detention here in Dover, NH.
 
Through that work and witness, our lives have been transformed, as we’ve challenged one another to show up, to listen carefully and to stretch in compassion.
 
We will continue to do this work, so long as our country’s immigration policies and programs treat decent people with disdain and fail to honor the immigrant’s contributions to our common life.
 
Here are some of our reflections.
SOMETHING OLD FALLS APART (7/12/20)
Cindy Nottage
 

When I think of these last four months, I’m reminded of the title of the book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. The pandemic is a like a skinned knee with its pain, sadness, and losses.  For me, it’s been not seeing my family for months;  missing my Hospice singing group and client visits, knowing many of the people I had grown to love would die before this was all over; no more hugs, physical contact, immigration vigils, in-person meetings. And I’m even finding having too much time is hard, being so used to a very full schedule.

But this pandemic has also come with its share of Blessings, filled with things that didn’t exist before the shut down and stay-at-home orders. With so much time, I can sit and watch the birds at my feeders and take long slow walks along the river in Exeter. I have a deeper sense of connection with neighbors: sitting outside each evening – socially distanced – sharing meals, laughs, and tears during this strange time. And a deeper sense of connection with church through new ministries and groups, brought about because of Pastor Dave’s creative and courageous leadership: Prayers and meditation together each morning, solidarity services for prisoners, Wednesday night Koinonia, Zoom coffee hour where we get to engage in meaningful conversation with so many, standing together in vigils and protests for racial and economic justice.

And although I’ve always loved immigration work, it’s coming together now with more of a sense of community and purpose: The car rallies at the County Jail with so many Community Church friends,  and probably most important, The Housing and Accompaniment Team, journeying with Ernie and other released detainees. It’s because of  the pandemic that this group formed, that Ernie was released from jail, that we provided quarantine, that Barry and Sherrie offered a host home, and that we now get to continue this wonderful relationship with each other and with Ernie.

Dave asked what gives me hope for the future. I see hope in the work we are doing to right the wrongs of our country and in watching the young people step up to carry the banner with the older generation of activists walking behind in support. This week, in Richard Rohr’s reflections, he spoke so clearly of how this pandemic has and will impact our lives and hopefully our country in a positive way, He said, “The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But the mystery of transformation more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart.” Then he quoted Brian McLaren, “As we experience discomfort in this time, let’s begin to dream of a new normal, a new normal that addresses the weaknesses and problems that were going unaddressed in the old normal. If we’re wise, we won’t go back; we’ll go forward.” So, I am hopeful that when we come out of the pandemic, years of racial and economic inequality and unjust government policies will fall apart, leading us forward to a better world.

MY EXPERIENCE AS AN IMMIGRANT (A Poem)
 
I did not know someday I would run.
Run away from my own country,
Run from persecution. This is no fun.
Hounded by the government of my country,
I ran. Afraid of being killed, I ran for my life,
My heart bleeding, my eyes tear-filled,
I ran without my kids, I ran without my wife.
Families are torn apart with many being killed.

Across the US border I came running,
Requesting for asylum and protection.
Officers with Shackles were waiting.
I had the feeling I was in for persecution.
Detained in a cold underground cell
No bed to lie on or sheet to cover,
Officers threatening to send me to hell,
I laid on the cold floor and wept over.

Several days sleeping on the cold floor,
My body gradually became sensationless.
Deprived of a shower for days, I felt sore.
The officers at the border are merciless.
They transferred me from jail to jail
Chained on the feet, chained on the hands,
I felt sick as my entire body ailed.
Oh, how apprehensive I felt in my heart.

Two o’clock in the morning they came
To get me for my credible fear interview.
Sleepy and disorientated, I heard my name.
The time to determine the truth was due.
They found I had a fear of persecution.
Hopes were rising, fears were receding.
I believed I had finally escaped execution.
In court, I was to continue my proceeding.

The Immigration Judges wait in courts.
They take turns in denying granting
Asylum, bond or protection. Caught
In this situation, I found myself wanting.
Judges refuse to believe narratives of horrible
Experiences that asylum seekers expose
Experiences, which are very plausible.
They seem to be doing this on purpose.

Judges ask for affidavits, evidences and proofs.
Being locked down permanently everyday,
How would I be able to get those proofs?
This I find very intimidating, I would say.
To get proofs, I must make calls to Africa
Without money, calls are not permitted,
No one would help me, not even an officer.
Yet, here I am financially limited.

The Judge denied granting me asylum,
BIA also denied and dismissed my case
The fifth circuit hardly grants asylum
And I am in the fifth circuit with my case.
I feel scared. Scared of being deported
Scared of what awaits me back home
Right now, my thoughts are distorted.
Fear hangs over me like a dome.

Fifteen months I have been in detention
Hairs on my head have grown white
Although I am losing all my expectations,
I am still determined to continue the fight,
Crinkles on my face are now prominent
Worry and stress make me grow old
Due to my deportation that is imminent.
My life seems to have been put on hold.

I came with immense expectations
Hoping to find safety and a better life,
Instead, I am trapped in immigration
I have missed my kids and my wife
With no money, no one here to help out,
I have not been able to talk to my family
For many months. No matter how stout
I try to be. I still fall apart easily.

My blood pressure is very high the doctor says
I fear for my life. Much is the pressure
I fear what will become of my family if I cave
The suffering is without measure.
In fact, I may never be able to see
My family, my kids and my wife
If I am deported, which it seems.
I pray to God to have mercy on me.

EM
ACCOMPANIMENT (7/7/20)
Debbie Leavitt
 
We began our last meeting of the Immigrant Housing Accompaniment Team with each of us reflecting upon our journey with Ernie and the impact that knowing him has had on us personally; so I thought I’d expand on that a bit for this week’s newsletter.
 
 
I became a French teacher because I’ve always been interested in both language and culture and have always felt that experiencing different cultures not only widens my perspective but helps me reflect more deeply about American society and values. As I approached retirement from public school teaching and thought about how I would spend my time, I felt called to work with immigrants to counteract in a personal way our nation’s restrictive and broken immigration system.
 
Upon moving to the Seacoast and joining the Community Church of Durham, I found a connection with folks here who had also been a part of the bi-monthly Jericho Walks for Immigrant Justice in Manchester. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to the formation of Love and Justice teams, Pastor Dave invited me to participate in the Housing Team which has been a transformational experience. First of all, it gave shape and meaning to my pandemic isolation. I’ve gotten to work with and to know so many interesting and dedicated people on our team and in the area through Zoom meetings and our weekly car rallies at the Strafford County Jail. I have learned so much about local immigrant resources like the Immigrant Refugee Support Group and the Seacoast Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition as well as the work that the ACLU and the American Friends Service Committee are doing in this arena.
 
And finally, most importantly on a personal level, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and get to know Ernie which has enlightened me about the chaotic and vicious political dynamics in Cameroon and personalized the horrors of our immigration system.
To listen to how Ernie has been treated for over 22 months here in the US is to experience the brutal treatment refugees and asylum-seekers endure when they are simply trying to survive and pursue a better life for themselves and their families. Each time I hear his story, I feel the fear, the insecurity, the loneliness, the randomness, and the injustice he has lived through and I wonder how I would have reacted in his shoes. He is honest about the fear and anger he has felt but with shining eyes he says “God is at work in our lives even when we can’t immediately see it. God answers prayer. I have become a better man through this experience, and I believe God is using me as a witness to His love.” I am honored to have shared in the blessing of his joy over answered prayers and his deep gratitude for his new friends at CCD.
 
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to me to be a Christian in this time and place. I am so grateful to be a part of a Christian church that takes seriously its commitment to justice for all people. Through my interactions with Ernie and other released detainees hosted by local congregations, I sense our oneness in Christ, whose love isn’t bound by culture or generation. I experience Immanuel, God With Us, and I know that my salvation is not only personal but inextricably linked to that of my brothers and sisters across the globe. When I break bread with folks of such different backgrounds, it gives me energy to join in the fight for more just laws and also fills my heart with joy.
GENEROSITY (6/18/20)
Barry Glunt & Cheryl Stromski
 
Thank you for this opportunity to write on our time as a host family, for it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the blessings of generosity. It was not an easy decision to allow ‘a stranger’ into our home. Yet, we have discovered how God comes to us in the stranger, and when we welcome another, we welcome God. As we pause and recognize the three weeks that Ernie has been a part of our family, we are amazed at how quickly the time has sped by. We have laughed together, and cried together; we have shared many meals. We have listened, and we have prayed together. In this short time, our lives have become one. It is in tasting this spirit of unity that we begin to understand and reflect on the ‘why’ of hospitality.
 
 
‘Gratitude’ is the first word that comes to mind as we reflect. Ernie’s expressions of gratitude to us and to the whole church are life-giving. Ernie’s gratitude, faith, and laughter open our eyes to the gift-nature of life contagiously causing us to also be grateful for what we so often take for granted or feel entitled to. We often find ourselves thinking, how could one with so little who has suffered so much be so grateful and maintain such a rich and deep faith? And the question then is, if we have so much, should our gratitude, faith, and laughter to our God not also be as proportional?
 
‘Empowered’ is another word that comes to mind. This opportunity allows us to do more than just state our disagreement or feel outrage about the policies and priorities of our nation that imprison people seeking freedom and safety of asylum in our country. It feels good and so right when our actions and words align.
 
With Ernie here, we must acknowledge that violence and brutality are rampant in the world. More than once we have lain safely in our beds at night and tried to understand what it would be like to have those seeking to end our lives burst into the darkness, firing shots. Where would we hide? How would we protect our children? The daily news is full of events that wash over us in familiar cities and towns, but Ernie’s eyes and sighs tell the story of a pain we can never even fully imagine. Ernie is a witness: a man as complicated as our past and as hopeful as our future.  A gifted and gentle orator, he sits at our table, and as we break bread, our family hears stories from a place we hardly knew existed. As we hold space for our differences, we find growth. We pray, we listen, and we love, and in this blessed relationship, we find God. We, our entire family, is grateful beyond words for the opportunity to host Ernie. Please keep him and his family in your prayers.
WHAT IS OF VALUE (6/11/20)
Dale Hempen
 
Four weeks ago when Ernie was released from Strafford County Jail due to the coronavirus epidemic, we welcomed him to our community and learned about Cameroon: where it is on the World Map, the conflicts and struggles in his native land. Many members of our Church have discovered Ernie to be a person of deep faith and with passion for justice.
 
Visiting with Ernie causes one to stop and consider what is of value: LIFE, family, health and justice in our countries and world, as well as our own personal health. Finally, the safety and well-being of others is of ultimate concern. Ernie calls to mind the ancient words of the Prophet Micah: “God has taught you, O Mortals, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, but to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God!”
 
Ernie reveals he knows about justice, having experienced grave injustice first hand! He shares kindness, always asking about my family, even as his family is in danger and he is years and miles away from them! Then, the humility: fluent in three languages, traveling internationally for his former work, all one does not learn until much later after multiple visits! During our first visit, I asked if he would like something to read; he quickly named “The Bible!” What would be the first book you would name?
 
Now well into our fourth week, following numerous conversations in person, via email and over the phone, I learn that Ernie is also a winning poet!  “My Experience as an Immigrant” will soon be printed in a national publication! Once it is printed, we will share it with you. I’m grateful through Ernie’s own words of poetry that you too will be able to “visit” with Ernie. We have much to learn from him as we share in his struggles and hopes.
 
WIDE OPEN CHURCH (6/4/20)
Jon Bromley
 
There’s been a lot of talk recently about opening up churches (as if they’ve been closed). But I know that yesterday my family experienced a church that is wide open!
 
Yesterday, I was able to spend time listening to and learning from Ernie: learning about the history of Cameroon, his family and his fears. I was shaken and I was humbled to sit in that space. Truth be told, I struggled to see God’s presence in the story (and the countless, untold stories just like it all over the world) and yet I could not deny God’s grace: Ernie’s five answered prayers (2 more to go, he says!), a compassionate social worker, a lost bag and a community of faith desiring “to do justice and to love mercy.”
 
I was most definitely at church yesterday!
 
Then, my wife and kids and 2 dogs joined another expression of the church at Strafford County jail. They joined many of YOU, waving their hands in a message of hope and mutuality. And my family listened and sang this song in the car – one that we have only heard until recently.
 

It is a song called the Blessing and is translated here into Haitian Creole:
 
The lyrics are:
The Lord bless you
And keep you
Make His face shine upon you
And be gracious to you
The Lord turn His Face toward you
And give you peace
The Lord bless you
And keep you
Make His face shine upon you
And be gracious to you
The Lord turn His Face toward you
And give you peace
Amen, amen, amen
Amen, amen, amen
 
The Church is open: doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly together. Amen.
EXPERIENCE THE HOLY (5/28/20)
Jane Gallant
 
Jane Gallant, chair of the Justice and Witness and CCD Housing and Accompaniment teams writes about her experience related to immigration since she joined the church three years ago.
 

My interest in working to support immigrants began when I joined the church three years ago. I have attended prayer vigils, done the Jericho walks around ICE headquarters in Manchester, and joined the 4-day solidarity walks from Manchester and Concord to Strafford County Jail in Dover which ICE uses as a detention center for immigrants until they are either freed on bond or deported. The 4-day walk always included educational events which highlighted the inhumane nature of our immigration policies and the need for real reform. All these have been worthwhile and meaningful, but COVID-19 has given me the opportunity to actively engage in the movement to support the release of immigrant detainees at the jail.

With the encouragement and support of Pastor Dave, the Immigrant Housing and Accompaniment team evolved from the Justice and Witness team with the mission to support immigrants who might be released during this challenging time. I have learned much during these past 3 months.  I have experienced the anxiety of wanting to do it all “right”…not to …“make any mistakes’.  I have also learned to trust that the Holy will be walking with me and others as we engage in this process.  The Holy presented herself in the face of the persons who have worked tirelessly in the state before the pandemic – members of Immigration/Refugee Support Group (IRSG) and Seacoast Interfaith Support Coalition (SISC) who have been actively engaged in immigrant justice and provide bond money, educational programs, and materials to help those who begin the walk with the newly-released immigrant.

Watching the hearings with Judge McCafferty, I experienced the face of the Holy, as she listened intently to the lawyers on both sides of the bench and spoke kindly to the immigrants even when her ruling had a negative impact on them.  I saw how our immigration policies can make very intelligent, successful people appear submissive as they wait to hear their fate. I experienced the Holy as she allowed Ernie to be released, thanks to the provisions that had been put in place by the Immigrant Housing and Accompaniment team and the immense support of so many church members.
 
 

I experienced the Holy in the people on the team as they volunteered to partner with the released immigrant. Before Ernie’s release, we located a Portsmouth hotel, the Fairfield Inn, that was willing to house an immigrant during quarantine. The staff was kind, helpful, and welcoming. Our backpack team filled a “welcome” backpack with the necessities he would need during quarantine. Upon his release, others began their ministries: Pastor Dave, as Ernie’s guardian, would be the first person Ernie would connect with after 22 months of detention; point persons who connected with Ernie at the hotel daily, and facilitated and communicated Ernie’s needs to the team and congregants; our tech support person who set up the phone and tablet so Ernie could communicate with us and his family, speaking to his mother for the first time since he entered the US; the meal organizer and meal preparers who not only provided meals while Ernie was in quarantine for 14 days but also engaged in heartfelt conversations with him; the host home providers who so warmly have offered hospitality to Ernie. The Holy was present in church members who provided financial support for hotel accommodations for the quarantine period as well as a phone, a tablet and other items that may be needed. 

This has been a learning experience for me and I am grateful to be part of this team and a member of Community Church of Durham. 

ENTERTAINING ANGELS (5/21/20)
Jim & Kelley Thibault
 
It is unjust the way our immigration system currently functions. Ernie arrived in the USA 21 months ago seeking asylum and has spent every night of his existence in this country in a jail/detention center. He has not committed any crime yet he has been treated as if he is a criminal. How could he not be bitter and angry? We were motivated to bring some of the love of Jesus to him. To serve him and show him that not everybody in this country ignores the words of Jesus as quoted in Matthew 25 “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”. A simple meal, that’s what my wife and I signed up to deliver. We hoped in some small way this would show we cared and perhaps help Ernie not be as angry with his situation. We went to serve a neighbor we had not yet met. At least that’s what our mindset was as we left the house Wednesday to deliver that food to Ernie.
 
We knocked on his hotel door, stood back more than 6 feet with masks on and waited. Thoughts raced, I’m sure my pulse quickened – though I don’t have a fit bit to verify that. Suddenly the door opened and what transpired over the next 30 or so minutes was not us serving Ernie. It was Ernie serving us. Ernie demonstrating such a genuine joy, such a sincere appreciation, such a profound trust that God was with him through all of this that I believe he served us. He showed us what it was like to demonstrate what Paul says in 2 Thessalonians “may the Lord grant you peace at all times and in every circumstance”. He was living out what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians to “give thanks in all circumstances”. He made me contemplate for the first time that maybe we were witnessing what the author of Hebrews was talking about when he said “Do not neglect hospitality, because through it some have entertained angels without knowing it.” He so amazed us with his spirit of joy that when we arrived home, we looked…and sure enough it was there. One more opening to serve Ernie a meal. We couldn’t help but sign up.