Finding Strength in Immigration -- Year after Year

By Rev. Dr. Jason Coker, Field Coordinator., CBFMS; reprinted from Baptist News Global

For the past 10 years, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Mississippi has had four coordinators and a couple of interims, but only one administrative assistant — and everybody knows her.

Deenie Grubbs has been the face, and more specifically the voice, of CBF MS through a turbulent decade. Whenever people called the office from the CBF national office or from local church members in Mississippi, they heard Deenie’s voice on the other line — and it has always been a gracious voice, which is why so many people love her. For a while, people would call just to see if CBF MS still existed; and when they called, Deenie was their proof that CBF MS was still alive and kicking. She also would do everything in her power to accommodate disparate requests from finding receipts for things she didn’t buy to producing donor lists for people to contact. She’s been a rock and a truly kind presence.

Deenie's grandparents Ellis and Esme' Assaf and their six children.  Deenie's son, Ellis is named after his great-grandfather.  Deenie's dad, Woody Assaf, in this family photo, is the baby! 

Deenie's grandparents Ellis and Esme' Assaf and their six children.  Deenie's son, Ellis is named after his great-grandfather.  Deenie's dad, Woody Assaf, in this family photo, is the baby! 

What almost everyone in the life of CBF MS does not know is that Deenie is not her real name; Deenie’s name is Sybil. This would shock most of our people across the state. Sybil “Deenie” Grubbs received her pet name from her grandparents — particularly her grandmother. Deenie’s grandmother actually called all of her grandchildren “deenie.” She would pinch their cheeks and shake them saying, “Ya deenie; ya deenie!” which translates into “You darling; you darling!”
This was a term of affection that her grandmother gave them from her mother country of Syria. Ellis and Esma Assaf emigrated to the United States after moving in and out of Lebanon and Syria for several years. When they finally had the opportunity to emigrate to the United States they did, and not long after arriving at Ellis Island in New York City, they moved to McComb, Miss., where they started a new life — they never returned to their mother country. For whatever reason, “Ya deenie” stuck with little Sybil, and we’ve only known her at CBF MS as “Deenie” Grubbs.

Deenie’s grandparents were among hundreds of thousands of immigrants leaving Lebanon and Syria, which was then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. From the 1880s to the early 1900s, Mississippi re-ceived many of these immigrants, who did not easily fit into the racial demographic of that time or that place. In other words, it wasn’t easy for many of these Middle Eastern immigrants, but the promise of freedom inspired their hope and tenacity to make it in America.

Today, I watched Deenie’s eyes fill with tears as she mourned the immigration ban prohibiting people from her grandparent’s homeland from coming to this land of freedom. This hits very close to home for CBF MS. Without Deenie’s presence for the past decade, I wonder if CBF MS would have been able to hold on, as coordinators came and went and when the organization failed to live up to its calling. The coordinating council certainly did a great job keeping this ship sailing during this period, but it was Deenie’s day-in, day-out presence that made CBF MS possible. I don’t think it is too much of an overstatement to say that CBF of Mississippi might not exist right now had it not been for the presence of Deenie Grubbs — a grandchild of Syrian immigrants. CBF MS loves Deenie Grubbs and we are so incredibly thankful that her grandparents were not prohibited from coming to this country and making a better life for their descendants.

The fear that has produced this kind of executive order, and the fear that it produces, stands in stark contrast to the hope that immigrants have of trying to find a place of safety for their children and themselves. I had the real privilege of working together with an interfaith group in Wilton, Conn., that hosted two refugee families — one from Iraq and one from Syria. I spent a year of my life eating breakfast nearly every day with a beautiful Iraqi family in order to let them know what the plans were for that day. While I was supposed to be there to help this family assimilate into American society, they actually helped me. They helped me see a bigger world full of good people who were running for their lives. Their two children — close to the same age as my children — became my little habibis.

I heard their story of how long it took to get refugee status, and how they ran for their lives the whole time their status was being processed/vetted in the United States. They fled Iraq and landed in a refugee camp in Jordan when their youngest was only months old.

The other family that we hosted from Syria wasn’t as fortunate. The father passed away in a refugee camp before the family was able to secure refugee status. This was after they walked with their five children for 12 days just to get to the safety of a refugee camp. That journey with small children saved their lives because they were running away from war. Today, the mother has started her own sewing business and the children  are all integrated into school.

I wonder if their children or grandchildren will ever work for CBF or CBF MS? I wonder if they will be able to help one of our organizations bridge a treacherous gap in a time of trouble? I also wonder how many of these children and grandchildren will never live in the United States as we build walls and close our doors to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I wonder where Deenie would be right now if her grandparents were prohibited from coming to the United States.

I think that’s the source of her tears today.