You should not agree to spend an early morning with June Williams unless you are prepared to wake up.
It is 6:30 a.m. on a Monday. My friend and parishioner, June, picks me up and soon realizes I am not a morning person. But sleepiness just won’t do for June Williams.
I soon realize that I must wake up too – from a sort of spiritual slumber into which many of us fall.
You see, June is exactly the sunrise you need to remember how vibrant, precious and significant life really is.
We are headed to a nearby city for an appointment at the Federal Immigration Court.
June has spent the past two years befriending Miguel (name changed to protect his identity), who came to the Unites States in 2017.
As an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Jonesboro, Arkansas, June is passionate about meeting people who are different from her in nearly every way.
You wouldn’t probably guess this about June when you saw her this morning. With a bubbly blonde bob and a pink-collared button down, she seems as though she might be headed to breakfast at the Jonesboro Country Club rather than to advocate on behalf of her dear friend, Miguel.
Miguel came to the U.S. on a visitor visa after a gang threatened to murder him in his home country, El Salvador.
He had some family members who were legal residents living in Jonesboro. Miguel then applied for a student visa to stay longer and attend university classes.
He also applied for asylum after not hearing back about his student visa. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) did not properly inform Miguel during this process.
Because of the confusion and the complications with USCIS, Miguel was considered “out of status” for a time.
But these complex challenges rarely discouraged Miguel during his time here; he always offered gratitude and grace to everyone he encountered.
A compassionate physician and lawyer, Miguel is “the most selfless person” June knows. It is easy to see that their friendship has transformed her life.
If you know June at all, you know about Miguel. He was her student in ESL class but soon became her friend. They shared many meals and conversations together.
Despite Miguel’s broken English, they communicated soul to soul, which required no translation.
Miguel taught June what it means to be kind, humble and grateful for what you have, even when it does not seem like much.
For the nearly two years he spent in the U.S., Miguel attended Magnolia Road Church in Jonesboro, where I serve as associate pastor.
June invited him to come with her, and they always sat behind me on the second row.
I would smile as I heard June whisper to him the words to the hymn that our pianist played so that he would know the meaning of what she was playing.
June was always trying to help Miguel feel more comfortable in a land that was not his own, especially in a time in our country when “immigrant” is often equated with “criminal.”
For June, the topic of immigration was much more than a news headline. It was personal. She knew firsthand about the struggles Miguel faced every day trying to navigate a foreign culture that was often hostile to him.
June took every chance she could to share Miguel’s story and presence with everyone she knew.
She often invited her friends to a meal of pupusas made by Miguel and his family. She made time for these meals amid a hectic teaching schedule and a full-time job as “Mimi” to her great-grandchildren.
And don’t ask June about the “R-word” – retirement. She does not want days spent playing cards, shopping or watching television.
In fact, she does not let society decide much of how she lives her life, especially the social climate of prejudice against those who are different.
With an infectious spirit of openness, June refuses to let society’s biases against “the other” stop her from living a life full of love.
And on this Monday morning, June is on a mission and asked me to go with her. She plans to speak on behalf of Miguel in the courtroom.
After a confusing struggle with USCIS, Miguel decided voluntarily to leave the U.S. in December 2018 to return to his family who missed him dearly.
He decided to risk his safety so that he could return to his family and his medical practice in El Salvador.
But on this Monday morning, the Federal Immigration Court is expecting him to show up.
When we arrive at the lobby outside of the courtroom, we go through security and find our seat among several Latinx individuals. We are some of the only white people in the room.
June finds an attorney and flags him down to ask him a few questions.
I smile as I see her position herself about four inches from his face and confidently introduce herself and her mission. She talks with her whole face, and her strong Southern accent is particularly noticeable.
The attorney gives her some advice and soon we go into the small courtroom. June wants to sit on the first row so she can see everything closely.
It looks similar to what I have pictured in my head. The judge comes in, and we all stand to acknowledge him.
This is the judge June has hoped for; she has heard he is a good man and hopes he will administer justice tempered with mercy.
June has spent weeks connecting with her friends in legal circles to help her in her mission to speak on behalf of Miguel.
The plan is to show the judge a few legal documents that would prove that Miguel has indeed left the country voluntarily.
This would hopefully convince the judge to dismiss his immigration case and forego the traditional route of deporting him “in absentia.”
June hopes to persuade the judge to close the case and clear Miguel’s record. This might allow him to return to the U.S. someday and would prevent him from having the status of a deportee.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. The remainder of the story is available here.
Jenna N. Sullivan is associate pastor at Magnolia Road Church Jonesboro, Arkansas.