Recognizing that visitors to the U.S. from the Southern Hemisphere often find it difficult to get visas, Mennonite World Conference (MWC) is taking steps to try to keep the situation from limiting attendance at its global Assembly next summer.
“When we invited the global church to the U.S. for the Assembly, we knew that difficulty in securing visas was one of the biggest obstacles we would face,” said Richard Thomas, chair of the National Advisory Council for PA 2015.
“We confess that our country’s deep fears about national security mean that many of our sisters and brothers must go through a demanding visa application process, yet they may still be denied through no fault of their own. This is especially true for citizens of countries which have strained diplomatic relations with the U.S. or from whom there is a perceived threat,” commented Thomas.
“Young adults from some countries in the Southern Hemisphere are likely to find it especially difficult to be granted visas. Because they might not own property, hold professional jobs, or have a spouse and children to return home to, the U.S. government considers them a flight risk.
“We are distressed by this since MWC’s Global Youth Summit is such a vital part of next summer’s Assembly plans—and of the future of the global church,” reflected Thomas.
Preparing in the Southern Hemisphere
Judy Zimmerman Herr and Bob Herr, Coordinators of MWC’s Visa Task Force, explain that a three-pronged approach is underway. “First, extensive preparation is going on in quite a number of countries from which people hope to come to PA 2015. In India, Kenya, and Congo, for example, leaders of MWC member churches are going into their district conferences to offer help with registering for PA 2015, obtaining passports, and assisting with visa applications,” explained Bob Herr.
Vikal P. Rao is one of the three-member India Visa Task Force who has already met with six of India’s nine national churches, and he will soon also visit churches in Nepal. “Over the last several months we’ve been establishing a contact person in each national church, who can help people complete their DS 160 applications for their visas. Then we will set up practice sessions so applicants can prepare for their individual interviews at the U.S. Consulate in India,” said Rao.
The Kenya Mennonite Church is hoping to send a choir to the Assembly. Allan Juma is working with the choir and the church through the visa process. For many in the choir, the process begins with needing to obtain a Kenyan passport, complicated by the fact that this requires a birth certificate. Persons must apply for the certificate in their home communities. For some, this requires several long trips, depending on where they were born and where they now live. Juma said that the church is aiming to send a choir of about 20 to PA 2015, but they’re planning to select up to 35, so that if some are rejected for visas, they will still have a viable group.
Preparing in the U.S.
Second, on the U.S. front, the Herrs are preparing letters of invitation which they will send to PA 2015 registrants who need visas. These letters of invitation on official MWC letterhead will demonstrate to Consular Officers that these persons have a bona fide reason to travel.
“We’re also assisting churches in preparing their members for the biggest barrier—their personal interviews at the U.S. Consulate in their country,” said Judy Zimmerman Herr. “Consular Officers are often young, and this is a first-level job in the Foreign Service. They are the ones who determine whether to issue a visa, and they do it on the basis of this one interview. They interview hundreds of persons in their jobs, and if they make a mistake and let someone through who then causes problems, that one incident would likely finish or at least impact their careers. So they are primed to be conservative and often suspicious.
“They are oriented to assume that people want to come to the U.S. and then stay illegally, so before granting a visa, they look for proof that this is not the case. We who are observing this process should understand that their orientation is based on real experience and evidence,” commented Zimmerman Herr.
“So we are sending letters of invitation to each person who is hoping to come to PA 2015, which they can show at their interview as evidence that they have a good reason to request a visa. We are also providing churches with background materials to share with their people before their interviews. We want to make sure they can answer questions about what MWC is and why they want to attend the Assembly.
“At the end of the interview, the Consular Officer either says the visa is granted or says it is not. There’s not a lot one can do to appeal, so it’s basically a one-shot chance,” Zimmerman Herr explained.
As a third step, the Herrs are preparing official letters from MWC which they will send directly to each U.S. Consulate that will be receiving visa applications from people who want to come to PA 2015.
“Registrants may be coming from 56 countries. A U.S. visitor’s visa is required from 44 of those countries,” explained Bob Herr. “Our goal is to establish that MWC and this event are authentic, and to have that information in the hands of Consular Officers before they begin to review these visa applications.
“We also plan to meet with the offices of the two U.S. Senators from Pennsylvania to alert them to the Assembly, especially if, in a rare case, we determine that we should appeal a visa rejection. And we will have a conversation with David Myers in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, again to inform him of this event, which involves attendees coming from many parts of the world,” said Herr.
Involving PA 2015 Prayer Network
For many potential attendees of PA 2015 who are applying for a visa to enter the U.S., there are many points along the way where the process can break down. The Herrs plan to create a calendar, showing the dates when visa applicants are scheduled for their interviews, and then share that with the Prayer Network for PA 2015.
“Send the calendar our way,” says Prayer Network Coordinator, Joanne Dietzel, “so we can lift up both the interviewees and interviewers. We need divine support, wisdom, and intervention in this effort!”
(To join the Prayer Network for PA 2015, or to learn more about it, go to www.mwc-cmm.org/pa2015prayernetwork.)
MWC release by Phyllis Pellman Good, Lancaster, PA, a writer and editor for Mennonite World Conference.
Vikal P. Rao, a member of the India Visa Task Force. Photo: Merle Good