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Back ‘home’ in Jackson

JACKSON – When a weary pastor returned from his travels, he found a faithful congregation waiting and his small town adorned in 300 yards of yellow ribbon.

It may read like line out of a novel, but for Methodist Pastor Paul Lee it was real.

Returning from a trip to Korea to settle issues with his green card, Lee could hardly believe his eyes when he saw a banner welcoming him and his family home to Jackson.

Yellow ribbons were placed on trees and telephone poles also in their honor. The parsonage was also dressed with ribbons and a large blinking sign bearing a welcome message.

“I was real touched and honored,” recalled Lee of the decorations. “I’m so blessed to be among these wonderful people.”

The people Lee referred to make up the congregations of the Jackson United Methodist Church. Rehoboth United Methodist Church and New Hope United Methodist Church in Roanoke Rapids also make up his three-point charge.

The Lees had been gone from Jackson for six weeks, nearly three weeks longer than they expected. The intent of their trip to Korea was to secure both Paul and Jina’s (his wife) green cards so they could continue to live in the United States and Paul could continue his spiritual work.

However, like any journey, the Lees had experienced the sometime rough road that leads to American citizenship.

In 1996, on a student visa, Lee first came to the United States from Incheon, South Korea. The then 23-year-old was determined to be a teacher in the subject of teaching English to Koreans.

“I’ve always been fascinated with other languages,” he said.

But a course in English literature at a community college in Virginia and a few too many thick books with tiny text soon took their toll as Lee decided to nix that plan.

An introduction to Methodist church-goers in Virginia and a school transfer to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill quickly set Lee on a different course of education—the seminary.

In June 2004, the Lee’s visa status was changed from student to pastor, with his wife on a dependant visa. After three years when the their visas were up for expiration, Lee said they took the next step toward securing green cards by applying for an I-360 with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

According to Lee, upon USCIS granting the I-360s, agents were to come verify information, but they never arrived.

As the expiration date of the I-360 loomed, Lee began to worry. Despite calls to USCIS and letters to U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield and Senator Elizabeth Dole, the Lees still got no answer on their status.

“We tried every possible way,” he said.

Lee said they had two choices, either stay in the country “running all the risks” with an expired I-360 or head back to Korea and approach the U.S. Embassy about obtaining a green card.

The Lees decided on the latter, assuming the process would take two to three weeks like with friends who had been in the same situation.

On January 9, 2008, the Lees arrived at Incheon International Airport, South Korea’s primary international airport.

The next day, leaving their children with family, the Lees went to the United States Embassy. It was there, Lee said the trip got off to a “bumpy start.”

According to Lee, the Embassy worker assigned to interview them had a harsh attitude and even unkindly tossed back documents they handed him.

Lee said when the interviewer asked if their three children were American born and they answer yes, he shook his head.

“It was like we were not supposed to do that,” he said.

Lee continued by saying he felt as though the man believed they were making everything up.

“We abide by the laws and he was treating us like criminals,” he said. “I feel somewhat violated.”

After the interview, which lasted 30 minutes, Lee felt defeated as he sat with his wife at a local coffee shop.

Each day he called the Embassy to check on the status of their cases.

Lee said he turned to his faith to help him get through the weeks of not knowing if he would ever return to the United States.

Phone calls and emails from the people in his congregation back in Northampton County also helped the pastor through. His congregation also contacted USCIS hoping to be able to get information on the case.

Finally after six weeks and a little more red tape, a package was delivered to the Lees—their green cards had been approved.

On their way back to Jackson, during a five hour lay over at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, a phone call to those back home revealed a tired pastor, who was not sure if he could make the drive from Raleigh International Airport back home to Jackson.

But those at Jackson United Methodist Church had plans of their own. They told Lee they intended to meet him at the airport and since he was jet lagged, they would drive him back home.

Church member Lillian Briggs of Jackson said eight people met Lee at the airport to welcome him back.

Briggs along with Isadora “Dodo” Johnson placed each of the ribbons, tied by church members, around town. Briggs said she went before the town council as well to get permission.

She recalled Jackson Mayor Jim Gossip approving the measure by saying the pastor was “an asset to the community.”

Briggs said the push behind the decorations was to just welcome their pastor home.

“This was his first church,” said Briggs. “He’s just gotten closer and closer to our hearts.”