Deborah Makarios of Epuni Baptist Church asks “Who is my neighbour?”

The first we heard of it was the man next door. He came to Epuni Baptist Church. He missed his wife and kids. He got headhunted for a good job here. He was eligible for residency—which would have allowed him to bring in his family—but the applications weren’t being processed. He went on missing his wife and kids, as Christmas and birthdays came and went.

Hearing others’ stories

He wasn’t the only one in that situation. People who were working hard and paying their taxes couldn’t see their families until… they didn’t know when. Even people like Cameron Conradie, invited to emigrate here to fill a skills shortage, were still not allowed to reunite with their families.

People like Jagdeep Singh Dhillon and his family, with jobs here but visiting whanau overseas when the COVID-19 pandemic reached New Zealand, were trapped—lack of residency meant they couldn’t return, though they still had to pay rent on their homes in New Zealand until their savings ran out.

The border is closed

The reason for all this was that the border was closed, to protect New Zealand from the virus. Except… the border wasn’t closed to the thousand people who came for the America’s Cup, bringing their spouses and children (and, in one or two cases, mothers-in-law).

The border wasn’t closed to Hollywood stars and their children (and their children’s nannies). The border wasn’t closed to sports teams.

The Bangladeshi cricket team were granted MIQ places for two tours in less than twelve months. The Wiggles visited. A tribute band passed through. Our friend went on missing his family.

What does God say?

Over and over again in Scripture, welcoming and caring for the foreigner is given as a command, and cited as an indicator for righteousness (see Leviticus 19:33-34, Job 31:32, 1 Timothy 5:10, Titus 1:8, Romans 12:13 and Hebrews 13:2).

Most tellingly of all is Matthew 25—Jesus’ condemnation (a hard word, but an apt one) of those who failed to welcome him in the form of “the least of these,” and his commendation of those who were welcoming, even if they didn’t recognise him.

“I was a stranger,” Jesus said. The word he used is xenos—as in xenophobia. The epistles reiterate the reminder: Jesus’ people are foreigners on earth—as he is (see Hebrews 11:13, 1 Peter 1:1 and 2:11).

What to do?

The stories kept coming. Measured by the Word of God (and what better measure is there?), this was injustice—unrighteousness. But what could we do?

I washed dishes and gnawed at the question. A hunger strike? Better not start anything you’re not prepared to finish. A prayer gathering? But can a single prayer meeting bring about systemic change? After all, the pandemic didn’t cause these problems so much as exacerbate and uncover them.

Then the idea came to me: a prayer relay. A single congregation may not have the resources to persevere in prayer on this one issue day after day and week after week for as long as it takes, but one day is manageable. Then another church can take up the burden in prayer the next day. And another church the day after that.

Step by step

I brooded on the idea. Perhaps it was just another pipedream, another over-ambitious scheme. Then we heard Carey lecturer Michael Rhodes’ sermon on ‘What’s the point of the people of God?’ It was a valuable reminder: justice and righteousness is what we’re here for.

It impelled me into action. I put the idea into words as best I could and shared it with my fellow elders on the Oversight Team. The response was encouraging.

One thing followed another. Emails flew back and forth with feedback and discussion. I preached on ‘Justice, righteousness, and the foreigner: what does God say?’ For the second time in my life, I built a website: reuniteprayer.nz.

Progress

Before our chosen launch date, the Minister of Immigration announced a new residency track for a range of migrants working in New Zealand. Applications would open before the end of this year; the majority hopefully to be approved by the end of next year. It was progress, but another long wait lay ahead—for those who were eligible. At best, they’d be able to join tens of thousands of others in the MIQ lottery sometime next year.

For everyone else—including those caught outside the country (even those still working remotely), those who are studying while working, and those whose marriages are not recognised as they haven’t lived together for 12 months yet—there is nothing but the prospect of one day, maybe, getting to the front of a queue to enter another queue to get residency (and either of those queues may stop moving at any time). Until then, limbo.

Our friend is leaving New Zealand, with nothing to show for nearly two years of separation but the renewed offer of residency—if he misses another year or more of his young children’s lives. It’s a price he’s not willing to pay.

Run with perseverance

On the 19th of October, as Parliament resumed sitting, a group of Epuni Baptist Church members gathered to pray outside the Parliament buildings. Others prayed where they were, in the small hours, the morning, the afternoon, evening, night. For a day, Epuni Baptist Church lifted up our immigration system, those caught in it, and those who direct it, to our merciful Father.

We’ve run our leg of the relay. Who will take it from here?

Sign up your church for a day in the prayer relay at reuniteprayer.nz.

Contributor: Deborah Makarios was raised between cultures in Papua New Guinea. She is married to Tim and is an elder at Epuni Baptist Church. She has a strong if sometimes impractical reaction to injustice.