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Caring for people on the move

Susan Krehbiel of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is the guest on the ‘Between 2 Pulpits’ podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Barbara Zandoval via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The work of Susan Krehbiel, associate for Migrant Accompaniment Ministries with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, is focused on people on the move.

“I’m responsible for humanitarian responses and for advocating for rights and services for people who are migrating, primarily those who are migrating for humanitarian reasons,” Krehbiel explained during a recent edition of the podcast “Between 2 Pulpits,” which is offered by Special Offerings and the Presbyterian Giving Catalog. Listen to Krehbiel’s 27-minute conversation with hosts the Rev. Dr. John Wilkinson and Katie Snyder here.

During the season of One Great Hour of Sharing, “Between 2 Pulpits” is speaking with representatives of ministries supported by the giving of generous Presbyterians.

Krehbiel began her work more than 30 years ago and came to the denominational office in 2014. Decades ago, she began at the local level in Texas during a time people affected by civil wars were coming to the United States from Central America. “We were part of what was considered the ‘Overground Railroad,’” she explained. “You could work your way up to Canada and apply for asylum there. I had worked on issues of poverty and homelessness prior to that — this idea of asylum being really kind of a sense of homelessness on a global scale.”

Asked by Wilkinson to define some terms, Krehbiel called migration “people on the move. In international terms, it’s somebody who has crossed a border,” something people do “for lots of reasons, which can include to seek protection” and can also include looking for work, reunifying with family members or seeking educational opportunities.

“There’s an international agreement that if you have to leave your country because you’re fearful either your government will persecute you or is unable to protect you from persecution, other counties will provide that safety and security,” she said. “That right is called the right to seek asylum.”

Susan Krehbiel is associate for Migrant Accompaniment Ministries with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Krehbiel said we often hear arguments including “people should wait in line” or “why didn’t they come the proper way?” or “why don’t they have papers?” Often the answer is that people have fled their country quickly and “it’s going to be much harder for you to obtain your own documentation,” Krehbiel said. “That’s why there are special rules and exceptions for people who are seeking protection.”

Among its many focuses of ministry, PDA provides educational opportunities to help churches and communities “understand why they care about migrants and people in need of protection,” she said. “We’re also involved in coalitions that do advocacy for people seeking asylum and refugees and to encourage financial support.” In addition, she said, PDA awards grants to presbyteries and, on occasion, directly through nonprofit partners who do this work, including transit centers such as the Interfaith Welcome Coalition in San Antonio, Texas.

When she speaks to church groups, Krehbiel often asks, “Can you tell me a time in history when people did not migrate?”

“We can’t find it. In our own communities, most of us have some type of migration experience — maybe just crossing from one state to the next,” she said, adding she hopes people who may have lived in this country for a long time will recognize “many of our hopes and dreams and aspirations are the hopes and dreams and aspirations of the migrants. I think they’re, for the most part, people we would be very proud to call friend and neighbor.”

The most common way Presbyterians involve themselves aiding people on the move is through providing for direct survival needs, Krehbiel said, including volunteering at reception centers and providing food or clothing. The second most common method is sponsorship or accompaniment, “where a congregation makes a strong commitment to provide housing or some financial support for daily survival,” or assists parents to find work or help enroll their children in schools.

“Often this is interfaith work,” Krehbiel said. Part of PDA’s task “is to network people with existing programs so they can connect up with people in need of those services.” PDA recently hosted a conversation among presbyteries assisting people arriving by bus, “helping them network around issues of housing and how we show up as people of faith in those relationships.”

“There’s a perception you have to be at the border to do this work,” Wilkinson noted. “But clearly the way things are happening now, that’s not the case.”

In fact, Krehbiel replied, churches far from an international border are responding by setting up space in their buildings or converting them into housing. “Sometimes, PDA offers grant support for that remodeling or getting furnishings for the space,” she said. “There are organizations all across the country that are already involved in this work. There are also immigrant-led groups that are active. But our churches aren’t always aware of them, and that’s part of the networking we try to provide.”

There are Presbyterians who go into the work “from a policy perspective,” while others say, “I just want to love my neighbor,” she said. Both groups “find this kind of hands-on ministry a wonderful way to connect. It’s not only powerful for the people being assisted, but it’s transformational for the Presbyterians who get involved.”

Krehbiel discussed her work as “an amazing faith journey, in terms of the friends I’ve met who have expressed their faith that God was with them on the road and led them here. One pastor said, ‘When Jesus is knocking on your door, you kind of have to open it.’” A woman who at one point said she didn’t want to “get involved in this mess at the border came back from meeting a young woman from Central America and said, ‘You know, I just looked in her eyes and saw God’s child. How can I not see God’s child in front of me?’ Those are powerful experiences I’ve had,” Krehbiel said.

Krehbiel previewed an upcoming General Assembly overture to launch a campaign to expand the number of volunteers involved in the legal asylum system. The idea is to encourage Presbyterian attorneys and those with language skills to volunteer with legal asylum projects. The proposed overture is still in the planning stages, she said.

“We continue to look for ways to network with folks who are receiving asylum-seekers and refugees in their communities,” she said. “We know it’s very complicated and confusing and welcome any contacts that we might be able to connect you with those services.” Emails can be sent to

In response to the Matthew 25 question, “When did we see you?” “This is as clear an answer as you can get to that question,” Wilkinson said.

Asked by Snyder about her hope for the church, Krehbiel said it’s for the church “to be a movement of people engaged in the community, a place where people can be welcomed, a place where people can be safe to have open conversations about the most complex, difficult things going on in our world — and where we see our faith alive all around us.”

Listen to other “Between 2 Pulpits” podcasts here.

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