published Friday, October 4th, 2013

Woman's long journey to citizenship culminates in Chattanooga

  • photo
    Mercy Jeyaraja Rao says the pledge of allegance.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
    enlarge photo

She first swore allegiance to the British as a little girl while living in the city of Visakhapatnam, south of Calcutta, India.

When she turned 17 and India won its independence, she wore allegiance to her new nation.

On Thursday afternoon she stood with 91 other people in Chattanooga National Cemetery and became a U.S. citizen.

The 83-year-old Mercy Jeyaraja Rao spent 11 years trying to become a citizen. She was turned down three times before making it through the arduous process.

But for a woman whose father had her recite Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and prayed for the United States every night, telling his family that it was the "greatest country in the whole world," the wait was worth it.

Even the looming government shutdown didn't phase Rao.

"I trusted in my God who brought me this far," she said.

Rao's Christian faith has taken her across the globe and to 28 states. It was what brought her to First Baptist Church of Knoxville.

More than 50 of her church members boarded a chartered bus to make the trip for the ceremony here.

Knoxville-based U.S. Magistrate Judge C. Clifford Shirley Jr. also made the trip. A personal friend of Rao's, he spoke briefly to the crowd of nearly 300 before turning over the ceremony to local U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice.

He said two people brought him to the ceremony Thursday. One was his father, a Marine veteran of World War II who is buried in another national cemetery. The other was "a woman who has lived a life of hope, of love, of grace, indeed of mercy."

Shirley handed the gold seal-adorned naturalization certificate to Rao as she filed to the podium at the end of the hour-long ceremony in her sienna and gold sari, a traditional Indian dress.

Rao smiled softly as she hugged friend after friend who waited for the end of her ceremony.

It was in 1960 when she first visited the United States to speak for the Baptist World Alliance. She served as vice president for the organization and also headed the alliance's women's department.

While traveling through the United States she met Mary Hutson, also of the alliance. Hutson later introduced her to Sandy Wisener, of Knoxville.

Wisener and fellow church members vouched for and supported Rao through her citizenship process.

After Rao retired following 48 years of teaching school, she came to the United States to live.

It took six years for her to get a green card and another five to be approved for citizenship.

Appropriately for Rao, Mattice ended his remarks by quoting from the Gettysburg Address, noting the sacrifice of the fallen all around the new citizens in the cemetery.

He then called upon the people seated before him to offer their "affections, talents, energy, support" and even sacrifice for their new nation.

"In 1960 I stood at the Lincoln Memorial and I thanked God for this country and for my dad," Rao said. "My dad said any country where people have knelt and prayed to Jesus is the country. And little did I know that I would ever come to live here."

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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