A Baptist church in North Carolina is marking the one-year anniversary of a member’s deportation with a podcast series reminding just how inhospitable the United States can be.
“Inhospitable,” a limited series podcast telling the story of U.S. immigration enforcement policy through the eyes of exiled church member Gilles Bikindou and his faith community, premiered Wednesday at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary, North Carolina.
Bikindou, a native of the Republic of Congo, came to the U.S. on an exchange student visa in 2004. The following year he applied for political asylum because of a potentially dangerous situation back home, but the application was denied. He joined Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in 2006.
Bikindou lived and worked legally in the U.S. under an order of supervision, a way for the government to keep tabs on law-abiding immigrants awaiting final deportation, usually for humanitarian or legal reasons.
“Orders of supervision were a common way for immigrants to continue to live in limbo in the United States,” narrator Steven Stacks explained in the first podcast episode.
“For many immigrants, there is no path to citizenship they can follow,” said Stacks, associate pastor of worship and faith formation at Greenwood Forest also responsible for the editing and soundtrack of “Inhospitable.”
“You cannot simply apply to be a United States citizen, but it’s also very dangerous to exist without documentation in this country,” Stacks said. “Where many immigrants are forced into the shadows because of a lack of comprehensive immigration reform for decades, Gilles Bikindou tried to live in the light of day.”
For years Bikindou traveled more than three hours each way to check in at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency office in Charlotte, North Carolina, often accompanied by Wesley Spears-Newsome, Greenwood Forest’s associate pastor for community and youth.
Spears-Newsome, responsible for scripting and the web presence for the podcast series, described it as a “monstrously inconvenient” process involving security clearance and an hour in a waiting room for a meeting with a field officer typically lasting about 10 minutes.
“These are individuals that have a wide degree of latitude and discretion in how they enforce the laws that they are charged with,” he said. “It’s these people making these decisions. The most remarkable part of that to me is how much those people have power and how much they are willing to lie.”
The podcast series claims ICE officials lured Bikindou to an administrative check in on Jan. 9, 2018, with the specific promise that he did not have to worry about being deported. With Spears-Newsome outside in the waiting area, they then took the 58-year-old with multiple health problems into custody and transferred him to a detention facility in South Carolina.
Despite protests and humanitarian appeals, ICE officials proceeded to deny Bikindou’s efforts to remain in the country legally before deporting him back to the Republic of Congo last Feb. 23.
Greenwood Forest pastor Lauren Efird recalled in Episode 1 the desperation and fear she heard in his voice when Bikindou called her from jail saying, “Pastor, pastor, they trapped me.”
“I remember feeling so helpless in that moment,” she said. “To be addressed as pastor and for him to cry out that way, it felt like a lament.”
“I feel helpless a lot as a pastor, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt helpless in just that way,” she said.
Spears-Newsome said future “Inhospitable” episodes will cover the asylum system, immigration courts, ICE, detention centers, the deportation process, the sanctuary movement and more. Each includes interviews both with church members and authorities in the relevant fields such as immigration law, academia and activism.
Spears-Newsome said Bikindou continues to have a role in the congregation’s life.
“He’s in touch regularly with several church members and the staff,” he said. “We pray for him each week in worship during the Prayers of the People and his picture and bag are still in his spot in the sanctuary.”
Spears-Newsome said the congregation also supports Bikindou with a monthly stipend from a missions assistance fund set up for congregants who face insurmountable financial challenges.
Church members listened to the first episode of “Inhospitable” during midweek services on Wednesday night. Six episodes are planned, accessible at https://inhospitableusa.org.