We met Alain in the country of Benin in 1999, at our little neighborhood church with its concrete block walls and wooden benches. We were all there because, unlike most churches in the area, this one conducted services in French, rather than one of the local languages of the city. Though it was a congregation of under fifty people, they came from all over the country and a few foreign locations.
Alain and a few other Congolese used to walk from the refugee camp to participate in the church. He was in his mid-twenties then, very tall and so thin his skin seemed laid right over his bones. He’d read scripture passages in a calm, mellifluous voice, and our pastor was constantly trying to convince him to join the ministry. There were few capabable, spiritually mature men around, and Alain seemed like a prime candidate. However, the pastor’s many stories of poverty, persecution, curses and threats sabatoged his recruiting mission. Alain, had, after all, hidden under a bed while militants shot up his house, and he wasn’t eager for more trouble.
Our friendship with Alain developed in long stretches of hanging out at our apartment. Alain would help us with our French and we’d help him practice his English and loan him books. His education had been interrupted, but he was anxious to keep learning however he could. When we left Benin at the end of our two-year stint, Alain was still stuck there, wondering what to do with himself. Rumors kept coming from home. Was it safe to return yet? One relative would say yes, another no.
We kept in touch via email as Alain struggled to find a place. In all the messages he sends us, he signs off, “To God be the Glory,” whether the news is good or bad, and for a long stretch it was usually bad.He was young, smart, reliable, and full of dreams, and door after door had been shut in his face. He tried to get a political asylum visa to America, and failed several times despite his stories of fear and violence. I had friends working in NGO’s near his hometown, but there were no jobs open. A few years ago, his father died suddenly of a heart attack, and as the oldest son, Alain’s responsibility for financial contributions to the family increased. He started a small trading business between Benin and Congo-Brazzaville, but it didn’t bring in much profit.
Then, we heard he got hired by an American offshore drilling company, to God be the Glory! Then, a short, exuberant email– he was engaged! Things were looking up. He got promoted at work, and would have to do a week-long training outside Houston. Perhaps we could get together afterwards? We started making tentative plans for his visit. A few days before he was due to arrive, he sent a text message that his long-sick mother had died. “I am an orphan now. It is God’s will. To God be the Glory.” He buried her and the next day got on a plane. Now Alain was wholly responsible for the well-being of all his younger brothers and sisters.
We didn’t make any firm plans until Alain got to the states, because most of the West Africans we know tend to treat plans, dates, and obligations a little more loosely than most Americans. You just gradually push things into shape, adding bits and pieces, until an organic growth of a plan accrues, like lichen creeping across a rock. We exchanged phone calls and emails throughout the week of his training. Plane or overland? New York first, or Phoenix? Would he like to see the Grand Canyon perhaps, or attend a class at the university?
On Thursday Alain got a message that someone else was building on the property he had just purchased. He cancelled the New York part of his trip, and was having trouble deciding about Phoenix.
Then he happened to mention his vacation plans to his boss, who wasn’t pleased. The company had sponsored his business trip, and if he deviated from the schedule, Alain would have to pay his own return flight. Anyway, they wanted him to begin work right away. If it were an African company, things would have been much more flexible; a person could arrange a reasonable compromise by having a friendly conversation with the right person. The “by the book” attitude of Alain’s new employer took him by surprise.They told him he had to be out of the hotel by 12 pm Sunday, no ifs ands or buts. Alain regretfully cancelled his trip to Phoenix.
Later that night, he sent us an email: soldiers had begun random arrests in his country once again, and his family was encouraging him to do everything possible to stay awhile longer in the states. But his ticket was booked, he had to leave his hotel, he knew no one in Texas except representatives of his company, which had made its wishes abundantly clear. If he stayed, he might avoid trouble for awhile, but he would likely fail once again to get asylum status, and be sent back once his visa ran out. He’d have to pay his own ticket back to Congo, and he would have lost his job. His fiancee and brothers and sisters, meanwhile, were without his protection. Alain went back. He beseeched us to pray for his safety, to God be the glory. I called his this morning, but he had already gone.