A reflection on Jesus of Nazareth (out of which nothing good comes)¹, the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr., and the detention of Gilles Bikindou.
Jesus. Martin. Gilles. These men have been with me in recent days – days in which immigration reform has been at the forefront of our national conversation; days in which folks spew all sorts of misunderstandings about refugees, immigrants, detention, and who has the right to be and thrive in this country; days in which our nation (ostensibly) turned our attention to honoring the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr., but on which our president played golf; days in which many Christians gathered to worship in completely segregated congregations; days that have been spent arguing, at least among those who have the wherewithal to stay engaged, about the use, by the president, of a derogatory vulgarity to describe African nations and Haiti.
Everywhere I turn someone is not telling the truth, at least not the whole truth.
Which is precisely the illness eating at the very fabric of our nation, the very flesh of our being, making us something drastically less than whole: white-washing the truth so that it is one, hearty, celebration of an entirely un-nuanced reality; worshipping white-Jesus; honoring tame Martin Luther King Jr, who we might just call “MLK” because then we just have initials and not a name for a man who was assassinated in our South; suggesting that immigrants from Norway would be preferable to Gilles Bikindou, an immigrant from the Republic of Congo.
Gilles Bikindou has a story that deserves our attention. But before we sit with his story, let us remember some whole truths about Jesus. And about Martin.
JESUS: Christians follow one who made the political authorities so angry that he was arrested and then crucified. There is no other way to tell his story. When challenged by the gatekeepers’ tradition and privilege, he blessed those whose lives hung in the balance, dependent on the whims of those who held power. Jesus welcomed and healed those who were bleeding, whose bodies were oozing, whose eyes were blind, whose limbs were useless, often in direct violation of laws about purity or Sabbath-keeping. He championed care for those who are hungry, teaching that communities must take on this task and feeding crowds of people gathered to hear him teach. Jesus not only welcomed the stranger, he welcomed those who were well known to live on the fringes – prostitutes, tax collectors, and rabble-rousers. The words he used and the actions he took created new realities for those he encountered – for those he healed, and fed, and blessed.
Followers of Jesus are formed by what Jesus said and what Jesus did. There is no compromise. We cannot be Christian without being formed as people who think and do as Jesus did.
MARTIN: Martin King was certainly a Baptist pastor and a proponent of non-violence. But like Jesus, he challenged the gatekeepers of tradition and privilege. And like Jesus, he was murdered. So we can rightfully celebrate his beautiful orations in which he gifted us with dreams of the lives our children might live together, and with visions of a moral universe that arcs, always and unfailingly, toward justice. We can hear Isaiah in his promise that only light can drive out darkness (and we can whisper to ourselves that the darkness cannot overcome it). But Martin King spent his time in places where he was not supposed to be with people he was not supposed to be with. And his followers did the same. Martin King’s life hung in the balance, dependent on the whims of those who held power. And there were dogs. And there were fire-hoses. And he was arrested and thrown to the ground and bloodied, and murdered.
Those who honor Martin Luther King, Jr., would do well to be formed as much by his defiance as by his beautiful orations. His last speech famously embraced the possibility of death, reminding all who heard that security does not always accompany doing God’s will. Doing what is right is not always, perhaps not even often, the same as doing what is safe or what is legal. Seldom does God call us to safety.
GILLES: From Jesus, our redeemer, and Martin, a prophet, we turn to Gilles, a man who lives, works, and worships in Cary, North Carolina. Or he did, until he was detained unexpectedly. On the very day that the president is reported to have used a derogatory vulgarity to describe African nations, just before we paused to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary, NC, held a press conference decrying the imminent deportation of church member Gilles Bikindou to the Republic of Congo where, significantly, he witnessed state-sponsored murder and violence, a reality for which he sought asylum.
Gilles was in the United States legally.
He came to the United States legally on an education visa. The Republic of Congo, not the United States, caused a change in this status: they withdrew funding so that he was out of compliance with his visa, reportedly because he refused to testify in defense of the state regarding violence he had witnessed. Afraid to return, he sought asylum. Though asylum was denied (and questions have arisen about the efficacy of his representation during asylum proceedings) Gilles was subject to an order of supervision that allowed him to live, work, and drive in the United States. This order was subject to renewal and was renewed at every check-in until January 2017. There is no question that the United States government had the legal authority to withdraw this order of supervision. There are significant questions about whether it was the right thing to do.
Several factors make this decision questionable and make his story stand out against the immigration chaos (all of which tangles up people who matter, because they belong to God). At the time, he was in the process of filing an application for a stay of removal; he had no criminal record and was gainfully employed; he followed all of the rules and was promised that he would not be detained at his last check-in; he lives with a medical condition for which he cannot receive treatment in the Republic of Congo.
So it is that Gilles Bikindou, who has followed all of the rules, has been here legally until the moment his renewal was denied in January, who is a productive worker with a significant tech job, and who is an active member in a local Baptist church, has been sentenced to death by deportation. He can live here. He cannot live there.
Why should we send him away? Is there no value in protecting the life of one who is under our watch-care? Can we extricate his humanity and his story from those who wish to talk about policy without describing people? His life hangs in the balance, dependent on the whims of those who the hold power to tell him he is in a place he is not supposed to be. When he dies in detention, or upon deportation, how easily will we out the damn spot?
YOU: What are you doing with the challenges of following Jesus and honoring Martin in these particular days? How do you untangle what is right from what is safe and what is legal? How do you untangle defiance from privilege? Can you summon the wherewithal to engage in the truth-telling that undergirds wholeness?
Where does Gilles fit into this wrestling for you? What story might Jesus tell to those holding Gilles in detention? Is there anything about his story that compels you to action – to a commitment to ask our government to do better, to be better, to offer protection and healing and comfort to an African man who is already among us, already worshipping in our pews? If you would like to work on his behalf, please see the information below.
In the days ahead may all of us seek the colorful, tangled, nuance of whole truth and the blessing and defiance it holds.
Information from Greenwood Forest Baptist Church:
For everyone asking what you can do, share this widely.
- Sign this petition: bit.ly/gillespetition
- Call Sen. Thom Tillis: (202) 224-6342 and ask him to do all he can to have ICE change their mind about Gilles. There is reason to believe that Tillis will be helpful here, so please consider thanking him appropriately, and speaking to his office with hopeful kindness. You may want to use this script: “Hello, my name is ________________ and I’m from ___________, North Carolina and I’m one of Senator Tillis’ constituents. I’m calling to ask for Senator Tillis to do everything he can to save Gilles Bikindou who was trapped by ICE on January 9. Mr. Bikindou has a life-threatening illness and is in danger both in detention or in the event of deportation. Please help us ask ICE to cancel his removal. Thank you.”
- Share all the news stories you’ve seen about Gilles, such as: bit.ly/wralgilles1 or bit.ly/nandogilles1
- You can give to cover legal and other associated costs by giving to a special fund at bit.ly/givetogilles and selecting “Missions Assistance Fund” from the drop down list.
¹The lectionary text for January 14, 2018 included John 1:46 in which the question is asked, regarding Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”