I was visiting one of the sister communities of Koinonia Farms where I was volunteering. It was Open Door (sadly it closed in 2018) in Atlanta. I was spending my time learning about how this inner-city community worked. At the time after working in an inner-city community as a Baptist minister for five and a half years, I had a certain All-American look and knew how to not be frightening to normal folk. I was having a good time and living as I had for those years in Louisville with the homeless again. Of course, it was different not being the person in charge. Which I found a comfort in.
I served meals to the homeless, help run the showers available to the homeless a few times a week, I attended worship services, and attended classes to educate volunteers about the homeless and community life. I was in my comfort zone. One of the things both the Open Door and Koinonia did was to work with and support another community, Jubilee Partners (they worked with refugees from around the world). They were all a part of what could be called the Overground Railroad that ran in the eighties to offer hospitality and resettlement for Central American refugees fleeing their governments. The catch was Central American refugees were forbidden by then President Reagan’s law to be in the United States. The hypocrisy of this was Reagan’s support of the hardline leaders in Central American made the country dangerous for the refugees. This was why many fled their countries in the first place.
There had been two gentlemen who had come from Jubilee Farms to stay overnight at the Open Door to fly out of Atlanta to the more friendly confines of Canada. Now the Open Door was to try to ‘smuggle’ these two men aboard the plane for Canada where refugee workers were ready to assist them in settling there. The problem was most if not all of the Open Door community members were known faces at the airport for helping refugees making flights out of the country. Reagan had ordered just this week a more stringent enforcement of his law. The community did not know what might await them at the airport. They were afraid of what would happen to the men if their very recognizable faces were seen there in defiance of the law. They needed a fresh face and idealistic young man who would not appear as a threat. Enter me.
I agreed to take the men. Not because I knew how to speak Spanish or knew my way around the airport. But it was something different. The church I ministered at in Louisville had hosted a couple of times refugees on their way to Canada via the Overground Railroad. At Koinonia I had participated with other members of the community to help survey migrant workers in the various farm fields around Sumter County where Koinonia was located. The surveys were to see how many migrant farmers there were in the area what were their needs and how they were being treated. That was my experience with migrants or refugees.
I was given a five minute ‘how to session’ on what to do and their flight numbers. My biggest worry was how to lead these two men who did not speak English through the biggest airport in America. An airport I had never been in. But early the next morning we were off. I was nervous and apprehensive but determined to help these men get on their plane and impress the Open Door partners. As we walked through the airport security guards seem to be everywhere.
The two men who had mainly been in the safe havens of Jubilee Partners and Open Door were very on edge (an international language I understood). We finally arrived at the airlines ticket and luggage desk. I waited in line as they stayed back. When it was my time I walked as confident as I could to the desk. She smiled and I smiled back. She looked over the ticket information. I was feeling confident until she gave me a quizzical look. You are not Jose are you. I explained he was over there and did not speak English and I was assisting him (this was pre 911). She said she needed to see their identification. I explained they did not have an American ID. Now her ears pricked up. I then proceeded with a letter from the embassy saying they had a special dispensation to fly to Canada. Now the letter was not actually legal but it sounded good. She then stated this was not a usual letter and she would have to call security*. I said that was not necessary but if that was needed go ahead.
I was now using all my charm and white man nonthreatening looks I had to assure her it was okay. It was not working. Now I was worried not so much for myself. I could always plea stupidity but not so much my travelers. I took on my most pious look and voice and said, ‘If the airline did not want mine or their business, I did not need to fly with them’. And with a good huff I turned around and left. I gathered the refugees quickly and trying to convey with my body total indignation at the situation walked away.
It seemed as if we passed hundreds of security guards as we made it back to the car. I drove back to the Open Door by around about route (kidding) not to be followed. I told my story they looked and smiled and asked if I was open to trying again tomorrow. I said warily yes. Afterall I was feeling like a failure.
The next day I learned they had called ex-President Jimmy Carter and he had arrangements to secure their flight for them. Carter was a ‘volunteer’ for Habitat for Humanity’ a program started by Koinonia and was apparently willing to work with the communes. They gave me one of Carter’s assistant’s phone number to use if I had any issues.
This time I walked through the airport as if I was on a mission from a President. I would not let anything stop me this time. I walked up to the desk brimming with confidence ready to take on the system. When they saw the names on their tickets they instantly rolled out the carpet. They had a Spanish speaker on site who interacted with the men and made sure everything was comfortable for them. They were on the plane lickety-split. I through my strong advocacy and force of personality had helped these men get to Canada. Or at least that was what I tell myself and others who were not there.
*If security experts notice something that might not be true of security in that era I apologize. It has been a few years. But the story is true otherwise.