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A Christian Slave: A Story of Being Illegal in America

The May issue of The Believer tells the oral history of Liso, an undocumented worker living in the U.S. I was just lazily perusing my copy, this Sunday morning, when I read this sobering story.

“In 2005, a thirty-seven-year-old Xhosa woman named Liso (not pictured) learned of a call for missionaries through her church in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. An American church was advertising the opportunity for foreign parishioners to come live and spread the gospel in the U.S. Liso quit her teaching job to join the cause. She entered the U.S. on a four-month “R” visa for religious workers, leaving her husband and twin twenty-one-year-old daughters at home.”

Liso relates:

It wasn’t long after I got married the second time that a church from Houston sent a letter to my pastor in the Eastern Cape. The American church was asking our church for missionaries to volunteer. My pastor’s wife called me that Saturday. She said, “There’s a church in the U.S.A. that needs a missionary. Are you still interested in going to America?” I said yes right away because—to tell the truth—I have a lot of debt at home. And, you know, we have the idea that everything in America is perfect because that’s what we see on TV and in the movies. In America, you find dollars lying in the grass, every leaf on a tree is a dollar. Right now, if you call somebody in South Africa and say, “Do you want to come to America, even if it’s to wash my pig?” I promise you that that person will say, “Oh yes, please let me come and wash your pig!” People will do anything to get here, to make money to send home. So, even though missionaries don’t get paid, I was sure people in America would help me.

I was a teacher at home and I knew that if I gave up my job I would not get another teaching position—lots of South African teachers are unemployed. But I felt it was God’s will for me to become a missionary, the right way to serve Him.

But after a few days they said, “Your pronunciation’s not good enough to do teaching. . .. She adds: “They did give me a lot of other work after that.”

“In Houston, Texas, however, Liso quickly found her host family more interested in her cheap labor than her faith, her teaching, or her good works. They put her to work as an underpaid housecleaner and babysitter, and refused to allow Liso to teach the children or engage in any other missionary work. Further, the church ignored her inquiries about her visa status and eventually allowed it to expire. After several months, and with the help of a sympathetic family who belonged to the church, Liso fled.”

“She made her way to Portland, Oregon, where, having now overstayed her visa, she has ended up as a live-in nanny working for a wage that amounts to less than five dollars per hour. Still, she continues to send a majority of her earnings back to South Africa in order to support her husband and children, as well as her HIV-positive mother and sister. She buys almost nothing for herself save for calling cards. She calculates that it will be 2010 before she can afford a plane ticket home.”

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