When I looked out into the sanctuary this past Sunday morning, someone was missing. Gilles Bikindou was not sitting in his pew. When he’s there, he is hard to miss, with his little white hat and glasses on. He is also hard to miss because he’s always sitting on the edge of his pew, with a serious look on his face, contemplating every word of my sermon. I fear Gilles will never sit there again.
I’ve never felt so helpless as a pastor as I did on Tuesday, Jan. 9, the day Gilles was unexpectedly detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As I received the frantic phone call from my associate pastor, Wes, I couldn’t do anything to reverse this horrible course of action. I couldn’t do anything to help a shocked and distraught Wes get back from Charlotte carrying only Gilles’ bag with him. I couldn’t do anything to stop the horrifying set of events that was about to happen that was going to change Gilles’ life.
The first phone call from Gilles was from the York County Detention Center in South Carolina. “Pastor, pastor, I can’t believe they did this to me! That man showed me another side of him, a face I hadn’t seen before.” The ICE officer handling his case had promised that Gilles wouldn’t be detained without warning as long as he continued to cooperate with the legal process. That apparently was not true.
Gilles came to the United States in 2004 from the Republic of Congo on an educational visa. Gilles had witnessed violence and murder in his home country and refused to lie about what he had seen. Because he refused to lie, his country would not pay for his education, so Gilles sought political asylum in 2007. He was denied political asylum, and after reviewing his case with an immigration lawyer in Raleigh, we don’t believe Gilles had adequate representation. Nevertheless, Gilles was living and working in the U.S. legally under an order of supervision that had been renewed every year, until late 2017, for reasons still unknown. But we have suspicions, of course.
Like so many people in our country living under temporary protected statuses, Gilles was abruptly denied something he had held for so long. What makes Gilles’ story so devastating is that he has a life-threatening illness that requires him to be treated by medicine that’s only available in the U.S. and Canada. He had delivered a stay of removal application to the Charlotte ICE office the day he was detained. The application had a note from his doctor about why he needed to stay here to survive. Sean Gallagher, the field office director at ICE in Atlanta, denied his stay of removal within a few hours of it being received. I feel sure Gallagher never read the application.
The next phone call from Gilles was the most harrowing. I had to tell him myself that the stay of removal had already been denied. He screamed in anger and fear: “Do they want me to die?” The anger I had been feeling finally gave way to sadness as I burst into tears with Gilles on the phone. I told Gilles that we would do everything that we could to fight for him. We continue to fight, to pray, to cry out to God, and to beg our government officials to change their minds. We are telling Gilles’ story, trying to make a way where there seems to be no way, trying to do the work of God’s justice in a world bent toward injustice and apathy.
While trying to find the right words for this Sunday’s sermon, I received another phone call from Gilles who had been transferred to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. He said, “Pastor, pastor, I know you are busy preparing for tomorrow, but I want to make sure that when you go to church in the morning, you tell everyone how grateful I am. I know you all are doing everything that you can to help me, and I know that God will not leave me.” Gilles reminded me to take hope, that God will not leave any of us, that God would sustain us as we try to find justice for Gilles. Gilles inspires me to keep on trying to make the kingdom of God a reality in our broken world.
The last word from Gilles was that he still hadn’t received his medicine. The days continue to go by. His car still sits empty in our church parking lot. His macroeconomics text book can be seen sitting in the back seat, a reminder of the dream he was working toward that may never be fulfilled, the dream of being a coder, of living a better life, of being able to better take care of himself. His car sits there as a reminder that our beloved Gilles — church member, faithful Sunday school participant, friend who prayed and cared for so many in our community — may never come home. His car sits there as a reminder of all the immigrants who’ve come to our country in search of a better life, who’ve been recently detained and deported, whose temporary statuses are being revoked without mercy, who may never come home.
His car sits there and challenges us to work to see that all of God’s children are treated as beloved, to work to see that God’s justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
If you’d like more information about Gilles’ case and how you can help, please visit Greenwood Forest’s Facebook Page.