By Maya Rao Star Tribune |
In recent weeks, the Rev. Francis Tabla saw uncertainty in the eyes of the congregation before him at Ebenezer Community Church. On Sunday, their faces reflected jubilation.
President Donald Trump’s decision to keep deportation protections for many Liberians “is nothing short of a miracle,” Tabla told the audience. “We have every reason to praise [God].”
“Turned, turned, He has turned it around!” the crowd sang, dancing in front of their seats. “Turned, turned, He has turned it around!”
“Somebody shout hallelujah!” said Tabla, who was dressed in a white dashiki. “Amen!”
With 700 members, Ebenezer is the largest of more than 30 Liberian churches across the Twin Cities and has found itself at the center of immigration debates that have vexed a close-knit diaspora in the northwest suburbs.
Before Trump reversed course on Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) for Liberians on Thursday, hundreds faced a Sunday deadline to leave the country or lose legal protections. Liberian leaders had even planned a Sunday news conference at the church to call for a compromise.
The Brooklyn Park institution has held prayer meetings, bused people to rallies at the State Capitol and hosted fundraising events for advocates to travel to Washington to make their case to preserve DED. Ebenezer will host a large “thanksgiving” event in several weeks to express gratitude for the extension — and also, according to Erasmus Williams, launch the campaign to work for a more permanent immigration solution.
“They’ve made the church available every time we need it, and it’s always been great in disseminating messages — the church has a large membership,” said Williams, chairman of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota. “The religious community played a major role in helping out this process.”
He added that religious leaders bring a kind of neutrality and “humanitarian spirit” to a partisan immigration fight between Democrats and Republicans. While Trump has retained the support of evangelical leaders nationally, may religious organizations have spoken out against parts of his immigration agenda, including the separation of families at the southern border.
Local Liberians are emphasizing their gratitude to Trump and say they want to work with members on both sides of the political aisle.
Minnesota is home to one of the largest Liberian communities in the U.S., a group that fled civil war and was given temporary legal protections starting in 1991. Those protections were renewed under administrations of both parties, despite periodic threats of DED ending. Last year, Trump said conditions in Liberia had improved to the extent that immigrants under DED could return to West Africa by the next year. Most have lacked a pathway to legal citizenship under the program.
The majority of the religious Liberian community is Christian while others are Muslim. Ebenezer opened in its current location in 2016 after the congregation spent years praying at Park Center Senior High School. It is set to more than double in size to 33,000 square feet with an expansion in the fall.
Members at the Baptist-affiliated church mainly descend from African countries, along with Haiti and Jamaica, and abide by a range of Christian denominations. Programs include professional development training for immigrants.
“You know a small town, everybody knows everybody and there’s one sheriff?” said Vera Dixon, a Liberian refugee who attends the church. “It’s like that. If someone in the church is affected, I am affected.”
Member Gladys Fahngon had been in the U.S. under DED for years but found a pathway to citizenship through marriage.
“We have been praying … that the Lord will give us favor, that President Trump will have mercy,” she said. “We are one community.”
Hundreds of churchgoers came to two morning services that mainly addressed the challenges of young people trying to adhere to Christianity. Tabla briefly addressed the fight over DED and invited members to join in seven days of fasting and prayer, which happens monthly. One reason for the fast would be to “thank God for [an] immigration breakthrough in our community,” said a notice in the church bulletin.
“We pray for the members of Ebenezer that we will embrace this challenge with enthusiasm,” Tabla told the congregation. “Lord … help us not to be complacent and to be bystanders, but to get involved.”
In between services, Tabla told the Star Tribune that the church had also solicited the help of national evangelical leaders outside of the Liberian community.
“President Trump has some affinity with the evangelicals, so we were able to contact some of them to weigh in on this issue,” said Tabla.
Williams wants to create more visibility around the Liberian immigration agenda. He noted that when people think about immigration reform they think of Central Americans trying to cross the southern U.S. border, rather than Liberians. He came to the stage at the end of the second service to offer a final rallying cry.
“Praise the Lord, DED has been extended!” he told the congregation. “Thank God! Thank God! And thanks to every one of you … who have been with us throughout this struggle. But this is the beginning.”
He urged churchgoers to attend an immigration meeting later that afternoon at the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, and noted the importance of faith leaders in the fight.
“The religious community was able to break the ice,” Williams told them.