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Big decisions along the border

College students find their lives changed during a 2019 border ministry event

by the Rev. Matt Curry for the Synod of the Sun | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Attending Synod of the Sun’s “Imagine: Compassion” event last fall were students from Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas, including Elizabeth Daniel (second from left) and Emma Gillaspy, at right. (Contributed photo)

BATESVILLE, Arkansas — Two college students who participated in a border ministry event last year found that the biggest impact came within themselves, and they responded by dedicating their lives to serving others.

Elizabeth Daniel, 21, and Emma Gillaspy, 22, both students at Lyon College at the time, participated last fall at the Synod of the Sun’s “Imagine: Compassion” event held in McAllen, Texas. Overall, about 70 people made the trip sponsored by the Synod of the Sun, attending three days of workshops and worship and reaching out to asylum seekers camped just across the Rio Grande River.

Both students came away inspired to new callings, one saying the trip was a “beacon of light” for her life to come.

Ministries across the wide-ranging Synod of the Sun continue to make a difference while offering compassion to those who are suffering. When congregations work together and in partnership with the larger church to serve the world that God so loves, the impact carries far beyond time and place, moving forward even through the challenges of a pandemic and closed church doors.

Daniel and Gillaspy were among several Lyon students and two staff who made the trip, including the Rev. Maggie Alsup, chaplain at the PC(USA)-affiliated liberal arts school of about 650 students.

From students’ arrival on campus, Lyon’s mission is to educate the “whole student” and emphasizes service and philanthropy, Alsup said. When members of the school’s Presbyterian student group learned about Imagine: Compassion, they jumped at the opportunity to find out more about how faith, social action and service can intersect. By the conclusion, both Daniel and Gillaspy had committed to serve as Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs), a faith-based year of service for young people offered by the PC(USA).

“By the end of the short weekend, Emma, who was already looking into YAV sites, wanted to look specifically for border ministry settings. And Elizabeth began to think about how she could continue learning and serving once she graduated with YAV,” Alsup said. “To say this event was life-changing is an understatement.”

Because neither Gillaspy nor Daniel held a passport, they were unable to cross the border with some members of the group. But they were deeply moved by what they saw from the Texas side.

Emma Gillaspy plans to serve for a year as a Young Adult Volunteer. (Contributed photo)

“The biggest thing was the overall sense of hope they had,” said Gillaspy, a member of First Presbyterian Church of Conway, Arkansas. “It’s easy to think that there is so much negative on the border. Everyone I talked to there had so much hope. It was such an uplifting experience.”

Gillaspy, a psychology major who graduated in the spring, said she was also inspired by working with ecumenical partner who helped her think about the world beyond her “Presbyterian bubble.”

Gillaspy was assigned to her first choice as a YAV, the border ministry in Tucson, Ariz. The pandemic has prevented in-person service, and she is considering delaying her YAV year. Regardless, she hopes to undertake a year of service before pursuing a career that would provide mental health services to those in need.

“I’ve lived a relatively privileged life,” she said. “Seeing those who have not had that privilege has made me want to help them.”

Elizabeth Daniel called last fall’s “Imagine: Compassion” border ministry event “a beacon of light.” (Contributed photo)

Daniel, a history and political science major who will graduate next spring, was moved to go to the border by an interest in seeing how the politics she learned about in books translates into life on the ground.

“I wanted to know up close. I did not want to be in a position of talking about it from a position of authority without seeing it myself,” she said.

Visiting a packed homeless shelter and seeing people having to bathe in the cold, dirty water of the Rio Grande changed her priorities and help establish her future life course, said Daniel, who is from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and attends First Presbyterian Church of Batesville.

Daniel hopes to be able to spend a year serving as a YAV. After that, she is looking at pursuing a master’s degree in public administration with a goal of entering full-time work for a nonprofit agency.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I felt like this was a beacon of light,” Daniel said. “I realized that this is what I can see myself doing and being happy with my life.”

For Alsup, there is only one ultimate explanation for the young women’s decisions: It was a God thing.

“What happened at Imagine: Compassion was the work of the Spirit, leading these young people to find their place in service, giving back at the intersection of their life’s desire to serve and the world’s greatest need,” she said. “I was grateful that I was able to be there while they discovered their passion and look forward to the ways they will give back and serve God’s people.”

Sept. 29 is the deadline to sign up for “virtual” Young Adult Volunteer service in 2020–21. Download the flyer here.  Apply here. The application season for in-person YAV service in 2021–22 opens Oct. 1. Learn more about the program here.

The Rev. Matt Curry is in search of good news from ministries throughout the Synod of the Sun that are making connections with their congregations and communities. Do you have an idea to share? Send Curry an email at

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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