Reclaiming the Spirit of Mission:
Immigrant Advocacy in Olympia
By Jesse N. Love with Janjay Innis
Methodist US-2 Missionary Janjay Innis and Tacoma Community House lead members of immigrant communities to share stories with State representatives in hopes of planting seeds of change among civic leadership.
It’s a cold, rainy day at the Washington State Capitol. Inside a warm, diffused, outdoor meeting tent, Janjay Innis is zigzagging through the limited space with staff and program participants of Tacoma Community House. Innis and others are scrambling to get their groups together as they prepare to meet with Washington State representatives during Refugee and Immigrant Legislative Day. On February 11, 2014 seasoned and newly-arrived immigrants visited the State Capitol and introduced themselves to the leaders in Washington – important people who make decisions affecting the everyday lives of Washingtonians (including new and undocumented Washingtonians).
Groups from TCH were organized by different ethnic backgrounds, including those from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia to Central America. Innis’ group comprised of low-level English-speakers who are Vietnamese. To help soften the language barriers, groups included advanced-level English translators to communicate effectively to government reps. The key strategy in connecting government leadership with the people they serve involved sharing each others’ stories as immigrant people.
Who else could be better in leading a day trek through the Capitol than Janjay Innis? As a US-2 young adult missionary for the UMC, the 27 year-old is developing her leadership as a social justice advocate at the historic Tacoma Community House. As an American of African parents and a daughter of Methodist Bishop John G. Innis (Liberia Conference), her calling is also an immigrant story.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., she moved back to Buchanan, Liberia with her family. During her father’s tenure as a pastor and principal of Camphor Mission Boarding School, she experienced community in a profound way. “Camphor Mission came about as a vision of village people who though uneducated, saw the value in education. Affluent as well as poor children went to school there and while these differences were known, it never hindered the formation of community. Faith was the medium that held us together as we used it to share, hold and own each other’s greatest joys and deepest pain,” shares Innis.
Her family moved back to the US in 1996 for work and for the opportunity to obtain a better education. After completing her undergraduate degree, she attended Boston School of Theology to gain a greater sense of how faith – the sustaining factor in her life – could be used to respond to some of the most pertinent social issues of our day.
She entered into the US-2 program to partner with agencies and to grow in faith and in leadership. “The US-2 program is very intentional in saying ‘mission is no longer about the west imposing its ideals to other parts of the world in a paternalistic way. Mission is not about taking God anywhere, because God is already everywhere. Mission is about walking beside our bothers and sisters who are oppressed across the globe and in our neighborhoods,” Innis shares.
As a social justice advocate for TCH, Innis wishes to serve “with”, working alongside other staff to support education classes, providing places to meet and organize, and to offer help to Asians, Latinos, Blacks, and others, linking social service with social change. “We are a people who celebrate inclusivity and are intentional about social justice, partnerships, and recognizing the gifts of program participants,” she shares.
At the State Capitol, Innis walks her ESL group through the Legislative Building to meet with representatives – bridging these two groups together for the greater good. For the representatives, there is the hope that by meeting with some of the people affected by policies from Olympia, they can develop a connection and support programs that help immigrants and refugees. For the ESL participants at TCH, there is the hope that by meeting with reps they will understand that they have a voice and that services they participate in are funded by some of the decision-makers in the State and don’t just come ‘out of thin air’. This window of opportunity is when people can share stories that need to be told.
Innis’ group first met with Rep. Tami Green (D-28th Legislative District). TCH participants introduced themselves and shared where they were from and how long they have been in the US. A program participant from TCH shared his success story of how he is taking classes to learn English, is working at a grocery store, and hopes to become an American citizen. Green was very receptive of his message; it is a common story about hard work and sacrifice in leaving one’s country to begin a new life in another. “We knew we were talking with someone who’d taken the time to understand the issues, she’d visited the Community House and had some sense of the importance of investing in naturalization programs as well as K-12 and bilingual programs – giving the children of immigrants special attention that would allow for smooth transitions into US classrooms,” shares Innis.
Later on, Innis group met with Reps. Dick Muri and Steve O’Ban (both R-28th Legislative District). Again, TCH participants introduced themselves and shared their personal stories. The State reps. also shared how they understood some of the challenges they were going through as immigrants to the US. Muri emphasized that learning English is needed in order to make a living and to have success in the US. Muri and O’Ban were both interested in learning if funding for TCH was through the federal government. “It was overall a good visit although it felt like our program participants were being told what to do to get to a better place instead of being affirmed for what they have done thus far.” Innis shares.
Sharing stories with each other is more than reflecting on the past. It is a time to understand one another – and for those at TCH, it was a time to have people with influence and power understand people with unmet needs who are struggling to build themselves up in this country. Innis shares more about the importance of sharing our stories: “Often when we are on our journeys and have arrived at a particular place, it’s easy to forget about what that journey was like – or of those who helped us on the journey to the point where we are living comfortably. Stories connect us over time and generations. They ground us and help us understand our connected humanity. Through our work, we can help explain funding, educational needs, and address the root causes in ending the cycle of living on government assistance.”
During their meeting with Rep. Tami Green, Innis asked, “Why is it that funding for programs that support agencies (like Tacoma Community House) are the first to be cut from the budget?” Green’s answer illustrates the challenges in seeking funding for these organizations: 1) reps don’t care and see issues around low-income/immigration as not a priority 2) the lobby for these issues are not large enough hence it doesn’t make a big impact 3) they are “just plain racist”.
Innis shares, “(Legislators who don’t support our issues) believe people should pull themselves up from their bootstraps. It’s this idea that certain kinds of people, like people of color, are seen as not hard-working; there is a sentiment that if they work harder, they will enjoy the benefits of what it means to be an American. But, it’s ironic that these representatives are cutting funding for support services and resources that actually help immigrants live a prosperous life as citizens who enrich our communities.”
Refugee and Immigrant Legislative Day may not have been a revolutionary event creating overnight change in the way people look at the struggles of immigrants – but it certainly was a good exercise in civic engagement. As a social justice advocate, Janjay Innis invites us all to consider, “How prepared are we if comprehensive immigration form is to pass, knowing so many people deal with issues involving learning English, getting work permits, and wanting to be citizens. How prepared are we as a community?”
The need to advocate for immigrant services and resources is an important mantle for different reasons – to develop a stronger workforce, to uplift immigrant communities through education and job opportunities, and to exercise God’s grace to those in the margins. Helping immigrants acclimate to this country has very real benefits.
“It’s easy for people of faith to be so overwhelmed or helpless about the world’s problems that we say, ‘Suffering has always existed in the world’ as a mechanism to disengage with those on the fringes. While some suffering comes as a result of being human, other kinds of suffering occur because of systems that have been created out of fear of difference. But in order to dismantle these systems, we must draw our strength from God – our source of hope, love, reconciliation, peace and justice. We are an Easter people – we believe that God will make things new right now and in times to come. It is my prayer that such a belief allows us to lead all of God’s people into the promise of abundant life.”
Janjay Innis continues to serve a two-year stint at Tacoma Community House. Innis sees her work as a source of strength as a Christian and a United Methodist. If you would like to support Innis, learn more about her at bit.ly/janjay. Also, if you are interested in supporting Tacoma Community House, tours are available and volunteers are welcome to help with participants involved with the various programs offered.
Visit www.tacomacommunityhouse.org to learn more about its services.
Jesse N. Love serves as the print & publications manager of the PNWUMC.