By NATALIE MILLER
Over 70 American citizen applicants waited patiently under a white tent June 7, for the moment they could officially be called United States citizens. Friends and family sat nearby, embracing the first Naturalization Ceremony to be held at the Historic Polegreen Church in Mechanicsville.
The applicants waiting to receive their certificates represented nations from nearly every continent. They came to America with memories of their homes in Ethiopia, Denmark, Barbados and Portugal. They travelled from as far away as Russia and China to start new lives on American soil.
Communications director for the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation Doug Blue said the foundation had been interested in hosting a Naturalization Ceremony for years.
“We thought we’d give it a try,” Blue said. “We’re really happy to have it here.”
Their first moments as official United States citizens were enjoyed beside the silhouette of the historical Polegreen Church. The original church structure served as a meeting house for Presbyterian dissenters during the “Great Awakening,” and was visited by great historical figures like Patrick Henry.
The nearly 110 year-old church was destroyed by a Confederate artillery round June 1, 1864. The current white silhouette structure was designed by world-renowned architect Carlton Abbot, and sits on the church’s original foundation.
United States Magistrate Judge Honorable David J. Novak presided over the ceremony, and the Lee-Davis High School NJROTC color guard presented the colors for the ceremony.
Founder of the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation Dr. Robert Bluford, Jr. attended the church’s first Naturalization Ceremony at 98 years old.
Blue said he enjoyed hearing how the citizenship applicants found their way to America.
“A lot of them have waited 10, 15 years to be naturalized,” Blue said. “You hear some really touching stories.”
Abdul Bangura came to America from Sierra Leone when he was 11. At 37, Bangura officially became an American citizen at the June 7 ceremony.
“It feels good. Now I can get my passport and travel freely,” Bangura said.
The rest of Bangura’s family lives in America as citizens, including his fiancée. Close family and Bangura’s beaming fiancée congratulated him after the ceremony, and posed proudly for photos.
Delegate Chris Peace, R-97, and executive director of the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation, offered words of advice to the new citizens, telling the group to embrace their newfound citizenship.
To become a naturalized American citizen, an immigrant not married to a legal citizen must be a permanent resident for at least five years and meet specific requirements. An immigrant who has had a permanent residence in America for three years and is filed as a spouse to a legal American may also gain citizenship if they meet further requirements.
Candidates for citizenship must also pass a naturalization test that includes English, U.S. history, and civics.
Citizenship can also be attained if an immigrant has served in the U.S. armed forces and meets other requirements, and in some cases when a child’s parent has citizenship.
Naturalization ceremonies are held frequently around the country and almost monthly in some areas.
Peace encouraged the newly naturalized American citizens to explore their home, and make new stories for their future generations.
Ivonne Schuh and her husband Christian will travel to the West Coast with their children, now that they can exchange their German passports for American.
“I love driving around and seeing different parts of the country, but it’s a lot of time,” Schuh said of her family’s previous experiences travelling around the East Coast.
Ivonne and Christian officially became Americans June 7, after living in America since 2003. Their youngest daughter was already an American citizen, since she was born on American land. Their oldest daughter is now eligible to derive American citizenship from her legally American parents.
The family is already planning a trip to California, with their new passports.
“We thought now, let’s take a plane—don’t drive,” Schuh said.
As the new American citizens pass by the outline of Polegreen Church on their way to a new life, they can be reminded of how a humble beginning shaped the lives of thousands.