Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Fun with the State Department

It’s time to tell a story that I have been holding back on, in the hopes that it would finally have a happy ending. But it doesn’t …

Now, I don’t consider it particularly pleasant to tell unpleasant stories about one’s own country, but I discovered long ago that the healthiest way to learn the truth about one’s homeland is to observe it from afar. I think Africa is “afar” enough!

A couple of months ago, the Board notified me that they wanted to celebrate the fact that Cameroon and Senegal were now officially “Missions” of the United Methodist Church, as defined by the Book of Discipline. So they wanted me to come to the next Board of Directors meeting (next week) and bring three Cameroonians with me. They’d also invited some people from the Senegalese mission.

Naturally, I got excited, and I prayerfully and carefully chose just the right three people to accompany me – two pastors, one Anglophone and one Francophone, and a laywoman from Douala. When I told them that I wanted them to go to America with me, they were ecstatic. Not a single one of them had ever been to America before; it was a dream come true for them!

I helped them get passports, acquire the correct documents, and get photos taken. I also scheduled interviews at the US Embassy in Yaounde for their visas (which has to be done at least two months in advance).

Everything went smoothly, everything was in order. I handed them all their papers outside the Embassy one bright Wednesday morning a few weeks ago, and wished them well. As they stood in line, I told them, “Don’t worry about anything – I know people who work here!”

But about three hours later, a dejected Pastor David called me. “They denied my visa!” A bit incredulous, I replied, “But why?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “The woman was very strict, and she only asked me two questions: Why are you going? and How much do you make here as a pastor?”

When I arrived at the Embassy myself, I discovered that each one of the three had received the same piece of paper that stated:

“Your application has been refused under Section 214(b) of the Immigration
and Nationality Act, as amended which provides that every applicant for a visa
shall be presumed to be an intending immigrant. It is the responsibility of the
applicant to provide such proof as will satisfy the consular officer that she or
he meets the requirements for the non-immigration status sought.”

I happened to know that the American Citizens Counter in the Consulate opened at 2 pm, so I made sure I was in line when the counter opened. When I got to the window, I was relieved to discover that I knew the woman who was about to help me – her children went to the same school as mine! I said a cheery hello, exchanged pleasantries, and then explained my problem, certain that with a wave of the pen, she would reverse the previous decision.

But she answered me curtly, “There is no appeals process. The applicants bear the burden of proof to show that they are going to return to Cameroon. If they want to try again, they can schedule a new interview.”

I replied, “Yes, but it’ll take another two months to get an interview, and their trip is in three weeks. Besides, I’m going on the trip with them – I’ll make sure they get back on the plane home.”

"You can’t go into the interview with them,” she said. “They have to convince us that they are not planning to immigrate.”

"But they have wives, husbands, children here in Cameroon,” I protested. “They have ministries here. They’re not planning to stay. In fact, the reason for this meeting is to help make plans for expanding the ministry here in Cameroon!”

She wasn’t listening. I suddenly realized that I had run into the bureaucratic wall. There was nothing more to be done.

Over the next few days, I kept trying. I tracked down every person I knew at the Embassy, made phone calls, and took interviews at the highest level possible. Every single time I ran into a dead-end, I was told, essentially, that this was the post-9/11 world. Everyone is a potential immigrant, potential terrorist, potential problem. Everyone is viewed as suspicious and threatening. No one seemed to like it, they assured me; this is just the way things are. This is the law.

Which makes me wonder if this is truly the way we want things to be … Suddenly, homeland security sounds like an obstacle to Gospel-work, a hindrance to making disciples.

Just a few days ago, I learned that the Senegalese pastors were also denied visas.

As a result, the Board has decided to postpone their celebration. (Wise move, since the only people who could be present were two missionaries, one American and one Congolese!

That’s why we’re not coming to America this weekend. It’s a shame really. I feel extremely sorry for David, Solomon, and Eugenie, who were truly excited about the trip.

But I also feel a little sorry for all of my fellow citizens who will miss the gift of their presence on their soil.