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‘A motivation out of love for God’

From advocating to tutoring, faith communities can fill in the gaps for asylum seekers

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Susan Krehbiel (right) of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Rhonda Kruse protest family detention in Berks County, Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy of Susan Krehbiel)

LOUISVILLE — The importance of faith communities standing in the gap for asylum seekers was driven home during a national immigration conference hosted by Church World Service (CWS).

Mabel Hernandez, Associate Director of CWS South Florida, and Susan Krehbiel of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) presented on the topic recently at Together We Welcome, a conference designed to strengthen support for refugees, immigrants and migrants.

The session was moderated by Bethany Showalter of CWS, who prefaced the discussion by explaining that an asylum seeker is someone who has fled their country of origin due to persecution and is seeking protection in another country. It is a legal pathway within the United States.

However, “as Bethany mentioned, the asylum seekers are eligible for very few services while they’re pursuing asylum,” Hernandez said. “They do not come connected with local agencies that offer support.”

That’s why it’s so important for faith communities and community groups to fill in the gaps for asylum seekers in any number of ways.

Susan Krehbiel

“It can be in the advocacy that we do,” said Krehbiel, Associate for Refugees and Asylum for PDA. “It can be in the direct services that we do. Sometimes we get involved at [the] individual level, and when congregations and faith groups do, I believe they bring something different and critical to the accompaniment of the asylum seeker because we are doing that out of love, a motivation out of love for God, and an understanding of the need to welcome the stranger and that desire to see the dignity in each human being.”

To be of help, CWS started its welcome program in partnership with the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Using an individualized approach, the program has proven to be a crucial connector to local resources, Hernandez said.

She recounted the story of a family who crossed the Southwestern border of the United States to flee persecution, gang violence and poverty in Venezuela. They also had medical needs: their infant son had a congenital heart defect that required life-saving surgery.

“We were able to secure medical treatment for that infant,” who has now undergone several surgeries. The family also has received other services, including legal help, and is thriving.

“The work that we do is critical, and we can’t do this alone,” Hernandez said. “Funding for programs such as the welcome program for asylum seekers is so important.”

Church members looking for additional ways to welcome asylum seekers may find there’s a need to teach English skills, help children with their homework, take part in a prayer vigil or rally, or host “critical conversations” grounded in “attitudes of love and acceptance, modeling a learning community within congregations and offering a safe space for [a] larger community to come together,” Krehbiel said.

One way to hold such a conversation is to show a film such as PDA’s “Locked in a Box,” an award-winning short documentary depicting the experiences of people held in the U.S. immigration detention system and people who visit them.

Screenings of films or videos can be combined with Bible studies or panelists or guest speakers on “whatever topic you’re trying to talk about,” Krehbiel said. “They bring in the voice of the refugee or asylum seeker directly to the audience. I think faith communities can be seen as a trusted place to hold these conversations.”

Read other Presbyterian News Service accounts from the Together We Welcome Conference here,  here, here here and here.

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