UCC pastor: With Jean’s return, a sermon becomes real

Daughter Jamya and son Janiah flank Jean Montrevil at JFK on Oct. 18.

Immigrant rights leader Jean Montrevil, deported during the Trump administration in January 2018, was released from his deportation order and returned to his New York City community of family and friends last month. Members of Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, who spent years protesting and advocating for his freedom, joined his family to meet him at John F. Kennedy airport on Oct. 18.

Montrevil returned to the U.S. under a 90-day period of special-interest parole, giving him time in the country to pursue long-term residency with his family in New York as conditions continue to deteriorate in Haiti. His deportation order was tied to a 1990 Virginia drug conviction. Recently, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pardoned Montrevil, giving him the opportunity to reopen his case and regain his legal status.

The Rev. Donna Schaper, former senior minister of Judson, shares her account below of Montrevil’s almost unheard-of return.

God has sent me to heal the broken-hearted and set the captives free and release the prisoners …

Isaiah 61:1

Normally when I preach this text I go spiritual on it.  A lot of people who have never known the inside of a jail cell or been deported or shackled understand imprisonment. We have broken hearts and we don’t feel free. We often feel captive or in need of release. Suffering is an equal opportunity employer. 

The Rev. Donna Schaper at Kennedy Airport Oct. 18.

But recently I got a good solid sense of material release. Our congregant at my former congregation, Judson Memorial Church, immigrant rights leader Jean Montrevil, had a COVID test in Port au Prince on Saturday, Oct. 16, got his traveling documents on Sunday, got on a Jet Blue airplane Monday morning and landed in New York on time at 2:40 p.m. By 4 p.m. he was walking out of deportation into a renewal of his citizenship. He walked out of the airport a free man. He was released. His captivity was left behind. Almost no one is ever un-deported. Don’t tell Isaiah! Jean was un-deported and the story is as real as the sweatshirt with his body wrapped in it that I hugged that Monday.

Jean had been deported unfairly and unjustly after he became an immigrants’ rights leader in New York City. ICE officials picked him up one night on his way home from work. He was immediately sent to a Miami detention center where he soon went off to Haiti, never to return to his wife or children or congregation or fellow activists. One who once was lost was found. 

How did scripture become real at Kennedy arrivals? How did a teenage son and a teenage daughter get to hug the father in person, the one they thought they’d never see again, when they were still in grade school?

Basically, a pardon was issued by the governor of Virginia for the original so-called crime and the Biden administration was able to convince ICE that Jean was no longer deportable because he didn’t have a prior record. This pathway is not yet well worn but it could be. It could release the thousands of people who are still unjustly deported. But let’s leave case law to the lawyers.

For now note the way pardon was achieved. Congregations in New York found their denominational UCC and Baptist counterparts in Virginia. They got the attention of their leadership – including Conference Minister Freeman Palmer. He got them to local sanctuary and immigrant rights organizations. My husband’s giant Jewish Virginia-based family got involved and used their Chanukah party list to send letters to the governor. Friends and family. One pastor realized that one of her members worked for the governor. We never knew what she did or didn’t do because it was one of those quiet things. You know. Under the radar. When you really do something good, you often don’t brag about it.

The same law school students and faculty at NYU who support the whole New York City Sanctuary Movement got involved and they stuck and stuck and stuck some more. NYU should give them all honorary doctorates.

Montrevil supporters from Judson Memorial Church and the NYU Immigrant Law Clinic join his friends and family at JFK airport.

Oddly, Jean had also almost been deported previously. That time he was detained in a cruel Pennsylvania detention center.  A big hurricane happened in Haiti while he was waiting for his plane in Pennsylvania. They released all the Haitians. Jean hitched back to New York and walked in through the front door. We thought it was Easter Sunday and Jesus had arranged a resurrection. But it was just Jean.

So now I will no longer travel to Miami or York, Pa., get Jean’s clothes or bring him pictures of the kids. I won’t go to Haiti and meet his new girlfriend or eat at the restaurant he opened downtown in Port Au Prince which he named “Donna’s.” Instead, I will have coffee with him, talk about his kids, help him restart his business as a driver, and muse on matters that are both spiritual and material.

When I visited him in Haiti, I took a suitcase full of Sensodyne toothpaste. That’s what he wanted and needed for his tender teeth. Maybe we’ll go to the dentist? Who knows. From scripture comes an utter unity of the material and the spiritual.

I woke up today a little sad for all the people who didn’t have a community strong enough to get free or even to get attention while bound. I’m going to miss calling Gov. Northam on my speed dial. And I can’t wait to have a normal relationship, again, with Jean. Broken-hearted no more. Yes, he had more than his share of depression and hopelessness, even divorce, certainly a large sense that God had abandoned him. “I just can’t get a break.” So Jean’s spiritual capacity surely had something to do with his homecoming. He didn’t give up either. But for now, the text is real. God will free the captives and we can help. God un-prisons the prisoner. God un-deports the deported. And we can be a small part of a giant story.

The Rev. Donna Schaper now serves Orient Congregational Church, UCC, in Orient, N.Y.

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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