When the Rev. Darlingston Johnson tried to buy 120 acres in Montgomery County to accommodate his new church a decade ago, he quickly learned that local politicians were less devoted to practicing Christian–style kindness than he was.
He needed a few zoning signatures. Officials barely gave him the time of day. The reason, he says: His membership included lots of African immigrants, a group he says has never had a seat at the table of power.
"While the number of African immigrants in the U.S. is large, our community lacks the strong influence with political and corporate leaders we deserve," he says. "This must change."
Johnson and other leading African-born Americans spent the last seven months working to rectify that situation, and the results were clear at a house of worship here Sunday.
Johnson, a native of Liberia, led an overflow gathering of more than 1,200 African immigrants at the Redeemed Christian Church of God, or Jesus House, to ask that four candidates for governor get to know their community and to encourage fellow immigrants to come together with one political voice.
Johnson's group, the African Immigrant Caucus, consists of several dozen church, community and business leaders, all of them devoted to ensuring that stories like Johnson's become things of the past.
"We're not here to agree on everything — we're far too [diverse] for that — but the goal is to get all the candidates to recognize us," Johnson said as Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, Del. Heather R. Mizeur, all Democratic candidates, and Republican hopeful Charles Lollar looked on from the first two rows. "Obviously, that goal has been accomplished."
According to the 2010 census, there are more than 1.6 million African immigrants living in the country, or about 4 percent of all immigrant groups, a number that nearly doubled over the previous decade. About half a million live in greater Washington — only New York and Minneapolis house more, according to a Brookings Institution study.
And while African-born American adults are the most highly educated of all immigrant groups — nearly 40 percent have college degrees, compared to 27 percent of American natives, according to the World Bank — they're also notoriously underemployed.
More than one-third of African immigrants who earned college degrees abroad were working in unskilled jobs as recently as 2009, a figure speaker after speaker affirmed with anecdotes.
Several recounted jobs for which they were qualified going to less prepared applicants. Others recalled their families being torn apart by what they called unfair immigration policies. Several more described being ridiculed by fellow Americans over such trivialities as their accents or the unfamiliar sounds of their names.
Each tale met with roars of approval from the audience, many of them dressed in the colorful attire of regions in nations such as Zambia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
The Industrial Areas Foundation, a nonprofit that helps build networks of faith- and community-based organizations, has helped the AIC grow and assisted in putting Sunday's event together.
"We've been told by experts in the immigration field that this is the first gathering of its kind, of African immigrants coming together across language, across countries, across tribes and classes for political power in this country," said Alisa Glassman, an official with the foundation.
Event organizers said the AIC is still gathering ideas for a collective platform, but they directly asked the candidates whether they'd meet with the group if elected and heed the community's concerns.
All four answered with a resounding "yes."
The thriving church Johnson founded in 1990, Bethel World Outreach, eventually settled in Silver Spring, where its 2,500 members come from more than 40 countries, many of them in Africa.
He managed to solve his location problem, but his hope is that given greater recognition and respect, his fellow immigrants should get a fairer shake.
"Look around," he said. Sunday's attendance "is a clear indication that you're ready to change the status quo. You're getting a small glimpse of what the future can look like."