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‘A beacon of hope’

Peace & Global Witness Offering facilitates healing and reconciliation along the U.S.-Mexico border

by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Engagement & Support | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Study Seminar participants help prepare sandwiches for an “open table” lunch after worship with The Border Church. (Photo by Kristi Van Nostran)

LOUISVILLE — As well traveled and as fully versed in Presbyterian mission as he is, Tom Elander was still surprised by what he witnessed and learned at the U.S.-Mexico border last winter.

“I walked away with a much greater appreciation for how difficult life is for many people from Mexico and Central America,” said Elander of his four-day experience in Los Angeles and Tijuana with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, “and how they often look to the U.S. as a beacon of hope to help them escape the misery of their lives where they come from — whether from poverty, violence, lack of education or lack of opportunity.”

Elander, a Los Angeles-based architect and a member of Brentwood Presbyterian Church in West L. A., was one of some 40 participants in the Southern Border Experience Travel Study Seminar from Feb. 28 through March 3, 2020.

No stranger to rolling up his sleeves to serve others or to do manual labor, Elander appreciated the group’s careful itinerary, which struck just the right balance between taking in important information and putting hands and feet to work.

“I feel strongly that my experience in Mexico building houses for many years and my experience in Nicaragua working to uphold a longtime mission partnership between the Brentwood Church and a group of Christian churches in Bluefields brings me closer to our fellow Christians south of the border,” said the 20-year veteran of his home congregation’s mission committee, who has traveled to Bluefields, Nicaragua, seven times since 2008 on behalf of his church’s partnership. “I also do work and travel through the Pacific Presbytery Immigration and Refugee Task Force.”

On his most recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, walking alongside Elander and his companions on the journey was Kristi Van Nostran, a full-time immigrant accompaniment organizer with the San Gabriel and Riverside presbyteries who helped put together portions of the seminar, which was designed to allow participants to see firsthand the impact of migration and immigration law north and south of the border.

“It was very exciting to work with our colleagues in Presbyterian Peacemaking to craft the border portion of the larger travel study seminar,” Van Nostran said. “I am glad we had the opportunity to partner with the folks at The Border Church/La Iglesia Fronteriza, our hosts while in Tijuana, because they are committed to transformational justice work at the border, and we could be sure that the funds from our experience were going directly to support the ministries on the ground.”

Before COVID-19 effectively shut down travel last year, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program — whose work is made possible by gifts to the Peace & Global Witness Offering — has typically sponsored travel study seminars to different parts of the world to provide Presbyterians with the opportunity to learn firsthand from the PC(USA)’s partners about efforts for peace, justice and reconciliation in the contexts of conflict, injustice and oppression.

“In the case of this particular travel study seminar, we wanted participants to experience the U.S. Southern border as peacemakers from both sides,” said the Rev. Carl Horton, coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “One by one we walked through the checkpoint; we met with migrants detained in Mexico; we visited a church that had converted its sanctuary into a tent-city shelter for those who were stranded; we attended Sunday worship at a peace park alongside the border wall. The passing of the peace in that place will not soon be forgotten, done in the manner that is the only possible way through the enormous steel posts of the border fence — hooking U.S. pinky to Mexican pinky.”

The Peace & Global Witness Offering is unique in that half of it goes to the national church to address these kinds of issues around the world, while 25% percent is retained by congregations for local peace and reconciliation work, and 25% goes to mid councils for similar ministries on the regional level.

Elander’s own commitment to understanding and engaging in ministries of healing and reconciliation at each of those levels — local, regional and national — epitomizes what the Offering is all about.

And moreover, travel study seminar participants, like Elander, return from such trips both informed and transformed by their experiences, ready to share stories, bear witness to all that they have seen and heard, and testify to their continued growth in the life of faith.

Travel study seminar participants help out with an art project with the children at the El Alacrán migrant shelter. (Photo by Kristi Van Nostran)

“I was surprised and very impressed at how a small group of church members in Tijuana that we visited took it upon themselves to open their small church to help migrants passing through Tijuana trying to cross the border into the U.S. in search of asylum,” said Elander. “At one time there were over 300 people living on the church grounds supported by this caring community. I was surprised at the determination of these faithful church members to help people in more need than they were. Surprised and impressed that while they did not know where the physical, emotional or financial support would come from to help them do God’s work, God somehow always provided just the necessary support.”

Although Van Nostran had been involved in the planning and preparation for such site visits as Elander described, she was nevertheless struck by the realities of day-to-day life at the migrant shelters the group visited.

“It was shocking to see so many families, particularly with small children, living in tents and makeshift dormitories in church buildings and sharing so few bathroom facilities,” she said. “Despite the conditions, spirits were high, and I was impressed with the organization and leadership on the part of the resident families to coordinate cooking and cleaning responsibilities. It was powerful to reflect with other participants, once we were back on the bus, about their impressions and how they were impacted by what they had experienced. I remember so many people sharing that there is nothing that prepares one for a visit like that — no amount of news coverage, no matter how accurate, can really portray the humanity and the inhumanity of it all.”

Since her return, Van Nostran has had numerous opportunities to share her travel study seminar experience, mostly lifting up the trip as an example of the ways people can come together in a multi-presbytery ministry. Riverside Presbytery recently joined San Gabriel and Pacific presbyteries as part of the SoCal Presbyterian Immigrant Accompaniment Ministry.

“This travel study seminar was a wonderful, hands-on experiential answer to the all-too-familiar question: ‘What is really happening at the Southern border?’” she said. “I experienced people being inspired to educate themselves further, to share what they’d learned with their congregations and communities upon returning home, and to actively engage in advocacy around immigration and actions of immigrant accompaniment.”

Since the seminar took place last year, the crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border has only escalated. And although Elander and other participants remain hopeful that a new administration will change the immigration system in the U.S. to become humane and just, Elander’s experience on the border has emboldened him to speak out wherever and whenever necessary.

Tom Elander (Contributed photo)

“My service on the Pacific Presbytery task force in particular has helped me to know that there are times when I must push back on my own government when the basic needs of human beings and fellow Christians are not only ignored, but also when obstacles are deliberately put in the way of people seeking freedom and a safe and decent life with hope for the future,” he said. “These experiences have allowed me to know how much need there is in our broken world, and how a little support can go a long way. The Peace & Global Witness Offering can really make a difference in the lives of people in need.”

Elander is grateful that the Brentwood Church — especially its associate pastor, the Rev. Lora East — has been very supportive of his efforts. He said, thanks in large part to East, that Brentwood has become a Matthew 25 congregation during the past year. Through their continued engagement with Matthew 25 and the Peace & Global Witness Offering, Brentwood Presbyterian commits to sharing the peace of Christ with all God’s children.

Toward that end, Van Nostran continues to educate Presbyterians about the growing ministry of Immigrant Accompaniment and is encouraged — as plans are under way to offer similar border pilgrimages virtually — that many now see it as peace, justice and reconciliation work.

“As we plan for the upcoming virtual border pilgrimages, we hope to call upon the presbyteries to make available funds from the 25% of the Peace & Global Witness Offering to help offset the cost of participation,” she said. “These kinds of experiences are one of the amazing reasons to generously support the Offering.”

Give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering to continue this valuable ministry.

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