Where is the Freedom? Songs of the Freedom Tradition

     Many of you have heard the dra- matic story of the Chinese ship that ran aground in New York harbor in 1993, with refugees ending up in a York, Pennsylvania prison. Most were fleeing the forced abortions of China’s one-child policy and sought legal political asylum. Unknown to the lawyers and church-based refugee workers who emerged to help these 200-plus Chinese (including, in time, students from Messiah College), the United States grants asylum to hardly anyone, and certainly not to those fleeing oppression such as mandatory family planning.

     What started as a campaign to free the Chinese has become a full-time program of advocacy and reform for asylum-seekers from all over the world who are now sent to York County Prison. The group who set out to change asylum policies and to help the Chinese achieve freedom took the name, “People of the Golden Vision” (PGV), a tribute to the fated ship that brought them here. Our nemesis is the INS (Immigration & Naturalization Service), which surely qualifies as what Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, calls “principalities and powers.” That is, it is an institution designed to serve the common good which has been nearly taken over by evil. Human rights activists and investigative journalists throughout the country confirm what we experienced: there is a diabolical meanness to the INS; they exhibit a systemic propensity toward injustice. The force of the principalities is felt in the routine mistreatment of detainees and in the corrupt way the agency rules in deportation hearings; supremely, it is seen in the deathly desire to return asylum-seekers to their repressive homelands, including those who have been tortured for religious or political beliefs!

     Sometimes the heartlessness of the INS boggles the mind: when our pro bono lawyers do win a case, the case is often appealed. When we obtain asylum for a pro-democracy activist from Nigeria whose relatives were murdered, say, or for a youth tortured in Guatemala, or for a Christian who was brutalized by Muslims in North India, the INS often appeals the case. Back to prison the victim goes, enduring months more of bureaucracy and waiting. As part of our efforts, we maintained a weekly prayer and protest vigil just off prison property so that the detainees could know of our ongoing advocacy. This lasted four long years, until the Chinese refugees won bail in 1997; now, the vigils continue monthly as a way to publicize the presence of newer immigrants in our local prison and to assure them of the care of folks on the outside.

     During those first four years, the weekly vigils were difficult to maintain, sometimes they were poorly attended. Still, even in blizzard conditions, the faithful would gather to pray, read Scriptures and be updated on various legal and legislative strategies. These times became on-our-feet planning sessions. Occasionally, the protests were dramatic; often, it was tedious, almost mundane, work.

      As the months turned to years, one of the things that kept the volunteers coming was music. One of the first weeks, after a bit of arm-twisting, a local school teacher, Rod Merrill, was convinced to show up to lead us in singing. I think we did standard fare protest songs, “We Shall Overcome” and the like. We felt earnest but corny, a handful of people holding hands, Rod leading “Kum Ba Yah” as TV cameras captured our feeble efforts.

     The following week, Merrill returned. He had been struck by what he learned, amazed that here in the “home of the free,” freedom-seeking refugees were imprisoned. He wrote a special song which expressed his naivete: “How Could This Be?” A week later, Rod again brought his guitar and sang his way through yet another original piece. A tradition was created: inspired by something at the vigil, a biblical text, a horror story reported, a supportive letter from a celebrity, Rod would come around each week with a song. He kept this up almost without fail for four years.

     In the mid-’90s, hope was wearing tragically thin, asylum appeals were being denied, deportation to China appeared imminent. Our appeals were being stonewalled in Washington. Meanwhile, other asylum-seekers were being sent here from other places, adding to our already strained-to-the-breaking-point pool of lawyers willing to work for free. In light of this, the resolve of the Chinese prisoners was waning. If deported, they reasoned, they might not be executed but might only be given a lengthy imprisonment which, they thought, would be better than the hellish wait in the U.S. prison. As new immigrants arrived, we heard stories of torture and abuse that were even worse than what we had learned from our Chinese friends. And yet, sometimes through tears, we sang on. Rod’s penchant for a clever rhyme often had us shaking our heads in amused amazement. It was Rod’s music, as much as anything, that kept our spirits up, compelling us to return week after week.

     It was during these sad days that Merrill made some rough copies of his songs on a cheap home recorder. These tapes, he called them “freedom songs,” gave strength and hope to many of us. The unadorned ballads spoke to our unique context, indeed, emerged from our unique context. These were folk songs in the truest sense, indigenous songs that both reflected and shaped our work and pain and struggle.

      The CD Where Is the Freedom? has recently been released by Mr. Merrill, complete with liner notes explaining some of the particulars which gave rise to the songs. The songs clarify the campaign of PGV and tell the story of immigration issues as clearly as anything short of a full-length documentary. The cycle of songs move the listener through the ordeal of the immigrant’s journey and arrest, the trials, and the hope of freedom secured by righteous citizens. It is a piece of oral history, steeped in religious and civic idealism, and is a great collection of songs.

     With passion and wit, Merrill sings of the hopes and dreams of those making escapes from their homelands and the unexpected irony of being imprisoned in the United States. “America, How I Dreamed Ya” captures just this saga from the point of view of the stowaway immigrant. “Just Trying to Kill Her Soul” is about a 20-year-old Ugandan woman who was put naked into solitary confinement because of her crying. “It’s the Waiting” describes the abusive prison conditions faced by many detainees. A few of the songs are celebratory, like one which des-cribes the release of two immigrants whose first act of freedom was to join our vigil. The title captures the jubilation such a moment of grace incites: “Well, There She Was, She Just Burst Up!”

     On this new CD, the songs have been enhanced with contemporary pop arrangements, think of recent Jackson Browne or the slower Springsteen repertoire, yet they retain the simple storyteller’s urgency. Merrill is plainspoken and a bit wordy, not an aural-picture painter or an allusive poet. He is personally hurt that America fails to live up to her best ideals and he takes the plight of the immigrants as a call to renew the American tradition of freedom, liberty and justice.

     Like a biblical prophet seeking a holy remnant, the final chorus of the title track, “Where is the Freedom,” captures his driving vision: “We’re it, the freedom, the freedom tradition. We’re the believers, in the freedom tradition.”

     With a bit of vocal backup, light percussion and extra guitar work, these simple tunes become powerful. They are songs for those who stand for biblical justice and liberation, whose hearts are caught up in what Merrill has called our “freedom mission.” These are songs for patriots, not of the armchair variety, nor of the ideologically-inclined who see patriotism as mere nationalism.

     And they are songs of hope. We may not change the whole world, but we can show gospel love to our needy neighbors. We can’t do everything, but we can fight unjust policies and demand some degree of reform. In the second to last song, Merrill realizes that our small band of activists are being covered in the Chinese press. He implores ordinary folks (“you may think you’re too insignificant, too unimportant, too unqualified”) to trust that God will bless whatever deeds are done in His love. Ordinary folk can make a big difference! The theme is reiterated in the last song, “Even as We Speak.” It’s a hand-clapping, fun song, celebrating the small things we can do to alleviate misery. The mood of the recording has shifted, and Merrill has moved listeners from the particulars of asylum-seekers to the universal call for compassion in a hurting world. He reminds us that “even as we speak, there’s poverty/throughout this world of such plenty.” The involvement in the specific campaign of reforming INS procedures has become a window into how the world works, the need for both personal compassion and institutional justice; it has become an opportunity to come to a more intimate relationship with the God who acts in history to set captives free. And to sing about a life where Jesus himself is seen among the oppressed.

     Where is the Freedom? not only documents the crime of U.S. mistreatment of asylum-seekers and the story of ordinary citizens in small-town America, but it leads us to that most extraordinary of religious truths: God cares for the stranger, God cares for us all. It is a recording worth listening to over and over again.

     The proceeds of Where is the Freedom? benefit the International Freedom House, a group home providing hospitality for asylum- seekers and operated by the Golden Vision Foundation. It sells for $12.95 and is available at Hearts & Minds.