On February 4, 2014 the Rockwood community development corporation held its first “Shalom Rockwood” event. The goal of Shalom Rockwood is to bring Rockwood pastors, Christian ministries and residential leaders together in a unified, collaborative effort to facilitate healing to the Rockwood community. I was asked to speak on “The marginalized immigrant experience” for seven minutes. (Yes, seven as in 7). Tough for a pastor!! Anyways, here is what I said:
Asking an immigrant to summarize the immigrant experience is a difficult task. To ask a pastor to speak for 7 minutes requires divine intervention. Hi, my name is Joe Enlet and I come from Chuuk state in the Federated States of Micronesia. I moved to Oregon in 2007 and I pastor an ethnic Chuukese church in Vancouver, WA. I also work for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization here in Portland. My Topicis “The Marginalized Immigrant Experience in Rockwood.”
Because of my background I will be narrowing my talk to the Pacific Islander, specifically the Micronesian experience.
Immigrants have been settling in the Northwest United States for the longest time. The very first immigrants were in fact Pacific Islanders from Hawaii who came on British ships in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The East side has been home to a majority of these immigrants. They have contributed to the fast growing diversity and richness of our neighborhoods including Rockwood. According to a report on Asian Pacific Islanders in 2012 entitled: An Unsettling Profile done by Portland State University and the Coalition of Communities of Color, Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing ethnic group in all of Multnomah County at a rate of 64%, yet they have some of the lowest levels of education success and some of the highest poverty rates. A study shows that East Portland including Rockwood has one of the highest concentration of Micronesians in the whole U.S. I do recognize that our neighborhoods have been generally welcoming but life is still very hard for immigrants.
People from the Federated States of Micronesia have one of the most unique immigration statuses in the U.S. They are under a bilateral treaty with the U.S. called the Compact of Free Association where the U.S. maintains full military authority over the Micronesian region and Micronesians can live, work, and go to school in the U.S. without a green card and U.S. citizens can live in Micronesia as well. Micronesians are almost like citizens but they don’t vote. Most have migrated to places like Portland and Vancouver, WA in search of a better life, education, and for hopes of accessing better healthcare. Micronesians can serve in the military, and in fact have the highest military enlistment per capita than any U.S. state. Furthermore, Micronesia has more than five times the national per-capita average of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. I applaud the many efforts that have been done to make life a little easier for us Micronesians in Oregon such as the victory we had in the Oregon legislature last year which changed our driver license expiration limit from 1 year to 8 years effective last month.
However, we are still far away from full integration (I prefer “integration” over “assimilation.”) Though many have found jobs and have been able to band together in communities to celebrate their diverse cultures and faith expressions, it is still hard to be noticed and understood. Though we are under the compacts and can come freely to this great country, we have been denied access to Medicaid. We can work without a visa and pay taxes but for some reason we cannot have access to healthcare. For 1st generation immigrants who have made Rockwood their home it is hard enough to be raising a family with limited English, a minimum wage job, and yet pay for the high cost of healthcare. Even with the new Cover Oregon initiative under the Affordable Care ACt Micronesians are still singled out as nonqualified and have to stay in the U.S for at least 5 years continuously before we are qualified. The problem of course is many people go back and visit their families back home. Once they travel outside of the U.S. the timeline starts back at zero, no matter how long they have lived in the U.S. prior to traveling.
Another challenge is just the simple fact of being understood. Although we are all Pacific islanders, the cultures are very diverse. Micronesia alone has close to 20 languages. When visiting the local Social Security Office, DMV, or trying to explain to an employer why we don’t have a green card and why we are different from Samoans or Tongans, it is tough to be recognized and understood. Even though we enjoy the benefits of living in this great country and are grateful for the general welcome we’ve received there is still need for integrating in such a way that we are not continually seen as strangers. We dream of neighborhoods where we can thrive and really be afforded the opportunities to raise our families with dignity and hope for true Shalom. We pray so that someday we can be equal participants as leaders and shapers of our neighborhoods, where we can have our voices welcomed at the tables where decisions are made for our families and our children, where we can be seen as fellow citizens. I thank you for the honor o speak before you and God bless you.”
Lately, I have been reflecting alot on how I am to frame my theological convictions around my growing passion for social justice. Since I began working at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) for the past year I have come to be more and more aware of the diverse communities of color in Portland and the difficulties and injustices they face both institutional and individual. As a result I have come to be much more passionate about equity and social justice issues. People of color along with immigrants and refugees experience some of the worst living situations in our society. I am amazed at how many different community based organizations are so involved in providing direct services, advocacy, community development, and capacity development among these populations. These are non-profit community organizations that are run by community members themselves who come from diverse backgrounds and who work selflessly for other members of their communities. As an immigrant I have even reaped the benefits of their works and our lives as immigrants are slowly but surely becoming more and more bearable.
Along with that, I get to work in one of the most diverse work environments I have ever seen. My manager is Taiwanese, I’m Chuukese, next to me is a Slavic guy, behind him is a Cambodian guy, next to him is a Vietnamese lady, a Slavic lady, and then there are two other Vietnamese ladies, a guy from Laos, and a Korean lady. We also have colleagues in our department who are from different African countries, Hispanics, and Chinese. We also partner alot with African American and Native American communities.
I have been privileged to bring the Pacific Islander voice to the table. I have advocated in both non-profit and government contexts. I cannot presume to represent all Pacific Islanders but at least I can be present and voice Micronesian/Chuukese concerns within these circles and contribute to the cause of advocacy and service while building a more equitable and just society. I have been volunteering in numerous organizations especially in the areas of health equity and access. I have been able to share at the Portland City Council, the Multnomah County, and even at the State Capital about the plight of the Micronesian peoples living in the state of Oregon. But why am I doing it?
Micronesias are suffering from health issues due to the fact that although they are free to come and live in the U.S. they are denied health access. Even with their status as citizens of the Freely Associated States who have a special relationship to the U.S. they cannot have health assistance even though they have lived 5, 10, or even 20 years as tax paying residents. Its not so free to me. Some of these Micronesians are even veterans who have risked their lives for this great country. All Micronesians come legally to the U.S. in search of jobs and a better life. Their children are U.S. citizens. Their children who are working are also paying their taxes. And yet, Micronesians are denied basic health coverage. Micronesians have some of the highest rates of diabetes, kidney failure, and cancer. But where do they go when they live way below the poverty line and are trying to make ends meet just so that their children can live in the U.S. and have access to a good education?
So I ask myself, “How does God feel about this? How should I, as a Christian, engage (or disengage) this in light of the fact that I am a Christian pastor and yet also a member of these marginalized immigrant communities?” Where is the church in all this? Indeed the most shocking thing that I’ve discovered is that in all this time that I have been working for social justice among the immigrant communities I have not found a single Christian Evangelical group or organization that would step up and work amongst these community organizations in solidarity with them. Some Christian groups sometimes pop up but never for the long haul and they often work separately and do their own thing. But should we? How can we be preaching and worshipping a loving and just God while turning a blind eye to the plight of these marginalized people who are scattered throughout our neighborhoods? Let us pray that God plant seeds of compassion and care in our hearts so that we can boldly reach out and let justice roll down.