Fijian church member finds faith community a strong ally in immigration battle

July 25, 2007

JULY 24, 2007|SACRAMENTO, CA - Just weeks after the Annual Conference session led by Bishop Beverly Shamana issued a challenge to churches to stand for those caught in the moral injustice of the current immigration system, a San Rafael church is front and center with a response.

 

For San Rafael First UMC, a church serving both Fijian and English communities, the Old Testament’s story of Ruth holds prophetic meaning these days. Ruth tells the story of Naomi, a woman whose extended family draws close to her in a time when she might otherwise have lost hope.

 

“For wherever you go, I will go.”

 

Those could certainly have been words another “Naomi” in California-Nevada heard recently. Neomai (pronounced Knee-yo-Meye) Quai Hoi was in church Sunday, July 22 for the first time since her release from jail on immigration charges. “There were a lot of tears in peoples’ eyes. They told me they had been praying for me,” said the 42-year-old mother of three. Indeed, for eight days her pastor and both the English speaking and Fijian congregations had kept a promise to go ‘wherever you go’ as Neomai faced a grueling and often frightening ordeal – an undocumented worker subjected to the country’s broken immigration system.

 

It began the morning of July 10. According to Neomai, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents waited outside her Marin home, initially to issue an immigration warrant for her boyfriend, who is also a member of San Rafael First.

 

Alison Hendley says Neomai told her she had been stopped as she left to take her 16-year-old son to school. “She didn’t know what her rights were. She said she had to show her passport.” Hendley is serving as the pastoral intern at San Rafael for a month, while the senior pastor, The Rev. Dr. Liza Klein, is away.

 

Hendley, a seminary student whose youthful voice reveals British roots, says officers of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed Neomai in handcuffs and escorted her to jail, held on $20,000 bail for the next eight days to await a hearing. For Hendley, the crisis offered the chance to crystallize her own calling. “I grew up in an abusive household,” says Hendley, “having no voice, feeling powerless. When I see someone without a voice, I have to respond on their behalf.”

 

Hendley and San Rafael First responded immediately, reaching out to the wider United Methodist connection. At the June California-Nevada Annual Conference Session presided over by Bishop Beverly J. Shamana, a resolution passed calling in part, “For an immediate stop to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids that terrorize our communities and a critical examination of ICE’s detention and removal plans, including ‘End Game’ and ICE’s current raids action called ‘Operation Return to Sender’ to deport 12 million undocumented immigrants, including families, children and workers.” For the complete Immigration Resolution link here.

 

Neomai says the first day in jail was overwhelming. Knowing she couldn’t afford the $20,000 she worried what would happen to her children if she were sent back to Fiji. “A little voice said, ‘You ask anything in My name and it will be done.’” Neomai says the Bible she kept with her during those eight days gave her a way to stay strong. I read Joshua 1: 5 and 9 again, and again; the words, ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous, be not afraid.’”

 

Neomai says she knew her visa was expired, but like so many people caught in the immigration trap, she had been trying to keep her family together and send money back to family members who are still in Fiji.

 

One of the writers of the Cal-Nevada Conference immigration resolution, the Rev. Phil Lawson, learned of Neomai’s situation in an e-mail from Alison Hendley. A retired pastor and current program director for the interfaith East Bay Housing Organization, Lawson is part of the New Sanctuary Movement in Northern California. “I have listened to many stories of mothers in Richmond, [California], people afraid to leave their homes because ICE agents would confront them on the street, asking to see their papers. I have listened to young children, U.S. citizens, plead with me to help their parents not to be deported.”

 

The New Sanctuary Movement was founded in May, a national, renewed effort from the 1980s, calling for prophetic hospitality, what national sanctuary leaders call an opportunity for congregations to provide hospitality for families in the deportation process, including citizen children, and adults.

 

Bishop Shamana spoke out about the New Sanctuary movement in a recent Time Magazine article, http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1645169,00.html

“I think it’s an issue where churches can take the lead. We are taught to follow Jesus and risk transformation and risk changing the status quo.”

 

Speaking to the communications office Wednesday evening from Arizona, Bishop Shamana had just returned from a two day experience along the Arizona-Mexico border with the College of Bishops in the Western Jurisdiction and the Humane Borders organization based in Tucson, Arizona. “What we’ve seen highlights the border experience thousands are living, and makes us more aware of what’s happening in our own Conference. I applaud and support the ministry of San Rafael First as they move from solidarity to a new kind of pro-active ministry that will help change the immigration system.”

 

The Rev. Lawson and others used e-mail as a grass-roots pipeline to locate an attorney for Neomai, and encouraged pastors to be available to stand with her at her court date. Neomai said, “People were telling me what they were doing for me on the outside. Still, I was surprised when I saw them in court.”

 

On July 18 Hendley, Pastor Lawson, and members of San Rafael UMC joined others to stand with Neomai. “We call it a Ministry of Presence,” said Lawson. “It was short notice, but we were able to have 10-12 persons at ICE offices in San Francisco for Neomai’s hearing. It was very rewarding. Neomai and her community are aware that they are not alone in their struggle.”

 

As a result of the hearing, Neomai’s bail was reduced from $25,000 to $6,000. Members of the Fijian community and an anonymous church member paid for attorney fees and bail, and in addition paid attorney fees for Neomai’s boyfriend who was later arrested.

 

“Those days changed my life – my spiritual life. I know now that when you pray in faith, believing, God answers.”

Neomai still faces uncertain days ahead. At the time of her arrest she worked two jobs, the sole breadwinner for her family. Unable to contact her employers while in jail, she has lost both jobs.

 

New court dates lie ahead for her, lawyers to pay. “This has been an awakening for me and for others in the Fijian church community. I am so grateful for the support our church is providing. And it’s made me sensitive to those in other cultures facing deportation. There are others like me in my church congregation who could be arrested. But now people in church are working to help us know our rights, and to protect ourselves. I have been so touched to see the support from my church.”

 

The New Sanctuary Movement will announce a sanctuary congregation in Contra Costa County forming in September and cluster congregations are meeting in Berkeley and San Francisco. The Northern California contact person is Rev. Sharon Brostrom, a retired Lutheran minister and East Bay coordinator of the New Sanctuary Movement. To learn more about the New Sanctuary Movement and how your church can be involved, contact Sharon Brostrom at (510) 834 3898 or e-mail

sharonbrostrom@sbcglobal.net.

 

Neomai’s boyfriend has been given his first court date – Friday, July 28. The Ministry of Presence is currently soliciting persons who are willing and able to be present with families when they have to appear in court. For more information contact Rev. Lawson by e-mail at: phillawson2@comcast.net.