Over the last 30 years, I’ve witnessed church pews slowly empty on Sunday mornings everywhere from my home state of South Dakota, to Anglican churches in England, and Australia. I’ve seen a number of meetings implode over budget pressures from exhorbant building costs and maintenance, and wondered what is God’s call to Christians near and far today? In my first year at Yale Divinity School, the pursuit for answers quickly landed me with New Sanctuary Connecticut – a collective of Churches, Mosques, and Synogogues working together to provide protection for undocumented immigrants pursued by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE officers on federal deportation orders. It was through this interfaith alliance that I came to meet Sujitno Sajuti, a 71 year old Muslim man originally from Indonesia, active in the Ummah of Hartford, CT.
Sujitno was 69 years old when we met on October 9, 2018. This day marked his one-year anniversary of self-incarceration, or sanctuary at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meridan, Connecticut. While circumstances such as these are no cause for celebration, Sujitno and his community of supporters chose to commune and commemorate this year of exile to give him time with community, and bring awareness to his situation as one seeking refuge in a country he has called home for over 30 years. One way to exercise power is to build public support for his defense to stay in America. I entered this story late in his struggle as the man behind the lens. Knowing that any fierce and scrappy justice collective could always use free event photos, I volunteered as photographer that evening to help the community build out their press kit of support. I can recall the energy of the evening being somewhat somber, yet comfortable. Many in attendance had been in such struggles for justice, and immigrant rights for much of their lives.
It was 1981 when Sujitno first came to America as a Fullbright scholar from Indonesia. He received his masters degree from Columbia University, and then returned to America in 1989 to pursue his PhD from the University of Connecticut. While at UCONN, his immigration status went into limbo, and he ultimately finished with a second masters in medical anthropology. Since, he has been living and working in the Hartford area, teaching and tutoring students doing ACT and SAT prep, and advocating for immigrant rights.
Shortly after the September 11th attacks in 2001, the Bush administration issued a Immigrant registry and tracking program to specifically target Muslims living in the US, further ramping up Islamaphobia throughout the country. Sujitno had been registered ever since, checking in yearly with the registry which was operated and enforced by ICE officials within the Department of Homeland Security. In 2017, shortly after the Trump administration’s Muslim ban took effect, Sujiitno received a denial letter on his request for a stay of deportation. Suddenly, with or without his wife Dahlia, Sujitno was given 24 hours to board a plane out of the country.
For Muslims, the religious significance of refuge, migration, and asylum dates back to Islam’s origin story with Muhammed’s forced migration from Mecca to Medina. In the year 622, shortly after the death of Abu Talib, who had served as Muhammad’s primary source of protection, Muhammad and a small group of followers fled to Yathrib after learning about an assassination plot on the prophet’s life. According to Khaleel Mohammed, “This forced migration date is so eventful that in 638 the Caliph Umar decided to use it as the starting point of the Muslim calendar. It was here that Muhammad became what we may deem head of state and oversaw the coming together of a community of believers in this city-state that was later renamed Medina.” He goes on to write that
“The Muslims who fled Mecca became known as Muhäjirün (moo-ha-jir-oon) (singular, Muhäjir). The Qur’an 59:8 describes them as impoverished, ousted from their homes and deprived of their property, thus indicating that their emigration was a forced one. It was here that Muhammad established the mu’akha—the brotherhood bond. (Essentially this meant that every refugee (muhäjir) would be accepted as a brother by one of the citizens of Medina, who, because they provided aid were known as the Ansar (helpers). These Muhäjirün and Ansars are lauded in the Qur’an, the former for their suffering and forbearance, and the latter for their kindness and selflessness.”
Baked in to the formation of Islam is not just the sacred migration and refugee status of the prophet Muhammad and his followers, but also the obligation for a host to receive any and all migrants who seek refuge. This code of hospitality is and has always been part of the glue that sustains the religion, and was also used to formulate interfaith protection and support. According to Jonathan A.C. Brown in his book Muhammad: A Short Introduction “many of the smaller Jewish clans of the town were also included in this compact and were guaranteed the same security and rights as Muslims. All these groups together were ‘one community – (umma) that would make war together and peace together.” Through the painful necessity of religious persecution, what we now would call interfaith community or solidarity was encoded in Muslim law. Interestingly, this conception of umma translates very well into today’s revival of the Sanctuary movement. Additionally, research done by Ingrid Mattson in her text “The Story of the Quaran: Its History and Place in Muslim Life shows that “Early Muslims seem to have identified more closely with Christians than they did later when Islamic and Christian empires conflicted. An early biographer of Muhammad said that he left untouched a depiction of Jesus and Mary when he removed the idols from the Ka’ba.”
While recalling the origin story, and early dynamics of Islam does not by itself erase or leave unacknowledged the painful history between the three Abrahamic faiths, it does help – especially those of us in the Christian West understand that there is a rich and proud history of working together for mutual protection and honor. The concept of umma is not just for Muslims to hold and protect amongst themselves, but is meant to be shared more broadly. It also reveals the way political empire or power can often corrupt and distort initial visions and agreement on life together.
Beyond the Isolationist and Islamaphobic policymaking that have come down on the life of Sujitno and thousands of other Muslims thorughout the country, the continuing migration crisis throughout the Middle East and Europe calls for a more robust commitment of support within the Christian West. According to Joshua Ralston in his journal article titled Bearing witness: Reframing Christian-Muslim encounter in light of the refugee crisis, “The church in Europe and North America again faces what [Jurgan] Moltmann identified in the opening of The Crucified God as an “identity-involvement dilemma.” He asked how Christians might be in “critical solidarity with our contemporaries”14 without sacrificing the particularity of their identity. The dual crisis of identity and relevance described over 40 years remains acute today. Now we need to add and expand on Moltmann’s questions to account for those posed by migration and the increasing cultural and religious diversity and interreligious encounters occasioned by it.” I feel this identity-involvement dilemma is often best addressed with a simple, and earnest commitment to presence.
It seems humanity has often struggled to hold the tensions of multiple perspectives, religious beliefs or identities. The longing for unity can become distorted with power, and become mutually exclusive from pluralism. Differences are set in competition rather than collaboration. Umma radically transforms this inability to embrace difference by grounding itself in the human instinct of solidarity – and this I think, embodies the promise of faith. Looking back on the one year commemoration of Sujitno, I can’t help but wonder if we were both knowingly or unknowingly reaching back as a broad community of the faithful to the origins of Islam – resurrecting in Meridan Muhammad’s hospitality codes established in Medina. Less than 24 hours after Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull, pastor of the UU church received the frantic call to see if the church could host Sujitno and his wife in refuge, the couple arrived with little more than a suitcase of their belongings. When God puts us in the position to help our neighbor, or our mujarin, we are abliged to do so.
As the evening of Sujitno’s one year commemoration in sanctuary was coming to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder what life is like when the last car pulls away from the parking lot. Not being able to run through the yard, pick up groceries, or attend your worshipping community for fear of being detained and deported the moment you leave the safe zone of the church. For Sujitno, a year had come, and gone and even with a legal team from Yale Law School, the state attorney general, local politicians, and interfaith community support, he had little to no way of knowing how his appeal would be decided, and when a final decision would be handed down by federal immigration court.
Ultimately it was May 30, 2019 when Sujitno’s case was decided. 598 days after arriving at the UU Church in Meridan with just a duffel bag, his case ended with a tentative victory, when it was ruled his appeal for stay was granted. For the first time in nearly 18 months, Sujitno stepped out on to the porch of the countryside church on an overcast day to feel the short gusts of a Connecticut breeze. Sujitno qualified for a U visa, given by the US to immigrants who are victims of violent crime. While the ruling and visa is not permanent, he was able to join his wife Dahlia back in Hartford where he resides today. In the press conference on the steps of the church, his legal team made the following statement:
While there is much work to be done to bring compassion and justice to the forefront in an increasingly closed off and cruel immigration climate, and while Sujitno and his wife Dahlia may never feel the safety and security of permanent residency or citizenship, his story displays an example of interfaith solidarity. An example of the strength of Umma that I can’t help but wonder was once cast by Muhammad on what was likely a very dangerous trek to Medina nearly 1500 years ago. These examples of hope, and strength in community help show the way for future work, and the sanctuary movement shows us how communities of faith can aid the resistance to state sponsored violence and disspossession. While there is much work to be done, we honor and remember the victories so many have worked to accomplish along the way.