Lisa Koop is associate director of legal services for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Goshen, Indiana, a partner of MCC Great Lakes.
During Advent 2019, I preached a sermon in which I explored themes of suffering and waiting in the context of immigration systems. As the granddaughter of Mennonite refugees who fled Russia to seek safe haven in Canada, and as a U.S. immigration lawyer, I confront this topic often. With national elections mere months away and the possibility that the results will have a profound impact on immigration policy, I revisit and abridge my sermon with hope it serves as a call to action for seekers of justice.
Isaiah 35:1-10 is full of imagery of the rewards of waiting: crocuses bursting into bloom, the lame leaping like deer, grass and reeds displacing jackals, the ways of the wicked frustrated. The passage says, “And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.”
We are meant to take comfort in these verses; to trust that those who suffer now will prevail later. But what to do about all this suffering in the meanwhile? We must not passively await something greater to come, but actively seek it. The “highway where there was none” on which the vulnerable and the suffering may safely travel will not emerge spontaneously, but rather will come to be only after those with relative privilege and power join the effort to construct it.
I offer two stories of mothers seeking paths to safety for themselves and their families. The first story is that of my maternal great-grandmother, Susanna Dück. My Uncle Frank Koop undertook to read and translate her letters, many of which she wrote from the Soviet Union to my grandparents in Canada. My Oma and Opa Koop escaped the Soviet Union in 1925, but my great-grandmother’s family was unable to get exit visas.
My Uncle Frank recounts:
In 1929 in one last desperate attempt to leave Russia, they along with thousands of other German speaking Russians converged on Moscow hoping that they would be able to persuade the authorities to issue them exit visas. Their attempts were in vain, and instead of leaving Russia they were forcibly either sent back to the villages that they had left or into exile. On December 1, 1929 the headline in the New York Times read: “Mennonites refused admission to Canada…shipped back to Siberia.”
In March of 1930, Susanna, my great-grandmother, wrote to my grandmother:
Oh how difficult it is for me to write at this time. Soon we were to have been with you, but how things have changed. We are now almost without courage and yet we trust in God and have not given up hope. Even though we were forcibly sent back home from Moscow we still continue to hope that we will travel to Canada. Everything was in place. The visas had been paid for with 220 Rubles but the money is gone and they will not let us go…
Oh how many thousands are now without a home, without bread, everything has been taken, no cow, no horse, no chair, no nothing. And then as well, how many of ours are imprisoned. Our son Hans…is in jail in Moscow. Sadly we do not know why, and so the innocent languish behind lock and key…The children are ill and die and their father is not present and she does not know where he is.
Over the next few years, conditions worsened, and Susanna witnessed as her four sons were arrested and sent into the Russian Gulag. They were never heard from again. Sometime later, Susanna, her husband, her daughter, daughters–in-law and grandchildren were all sent into exile.
My grandparents were the lucky ones. They made it to Canada with the help of Canadian Mennonites and built a life for themselves there. They learned English, bought a fruit farm, raised 13 children. What anguish that no path ever emerged for Susanna, and she never made it to the promised land of Canada.
What do we do with the waiting and hoping that does not end in joy? The Isaiah text exhorts: “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, God will come with vengeance; with divine retribution God will come to save you.” Perhaps the “saving” in these situations is the heavenly reward. But that feels inadequate – incomplete – it leaves us disquieted when justice on earth does not reveal itself in a form recognizable to us.
Fast-forward 90 years. Beginning in late 2017, the treatment of asylum seekers arriving in the U.S. took a sharp and alarming turn when the government implemented a policy of separating parents from their children at the border. The nonprofit legal services organization where I work represents a young mother from Central America who fled severe gender and gang violence with her young son, who I’ll call David (age 3 at the time). I share their story with permission.
When they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, they waited until nightfall before crossing the river. The mother held David as they crossed, struggling to keep his head above the surface as their raft filled with water. At the northern shore they turned themselves in to immigration officials and were taken to a border patrol station where they were held in a small, overcrowded cell. An official told the mother they were going to take her son away. When she became upset, David tried to wipe her tears. She told him not to worry and hid her face.
The next morning, officials ordered the mother to give David to a female officer. When she resisted, they said, “Don’t force us to take him.” David was asleep and she hugged him tightly. The officials took him from her arms and forced him to stand. He woke up and said “mama,” as the officials took the mother away. They handcuffed her and led her out of the building. On her way out, she saw David sitting alone in a wire cage, looking around as though he was trying to find her. She hid her face so he would not see her taken away.
Photo provided by Lisa Koop
The mother was sent to an immigration jail. She did not know where David was for about a month. She finally learned he was at a shelter for children in Chicago. When they spoke by phone, she sang to him.
During her separation from David, the mother considered abandoning her asylum claim and requesting deportation because she thought that was the only way she could get her son back. She persevered, and after eight months of separation, a federal court judge ordered that she and David be reunified. Nearly two years later, they still have a long way to go in their asylum case. But they are together, they are free, and they have lawyers fighting for them. Their waiting was fraught. It left them damaged, and victory – in this case true and permanent safety – is still unsure. Is this Isaiah’s Way of Holiness?
Amidst a pandemic that has disrupted life in every way, our collective attention is pulled away from the human rights abuses rife within the U.S. immigration system. As Christians, and as Mennonites, we must remain vigilant as the stories of refugees play out across the ages, around the world. From Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escaping to Egypt; to Mennonites fleeing the Ukraine; to Syrian, Iraqi, Congolese, and Central American refugees today.
Despite politicians who speak of building walls and excluding refugees, and laws designed to keep people out, our voices must be stronger, our actions more visible. We must persist in the belief that the people of God can help create a path where there currently is none and bring about a new era. We must prepare the way for a new reality.
Safe Home, Safe Refuge: The MCC U.S. Washington Office offers resources to dig deeper into the root causes of migration, learn more about U.S. asylum policy and discover how each of us can be part of working toward safe homes for everyone, and safe refuge for those who need it.