Even during the depths of the pandemic, Louisville’s Beechmont Presbyterian Church got to work meeting asylees’ educational needs
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — When it came time to minister to the families of recent asylees from Central America, it turns out a global pandemic was no match for the 60 or so members and friends of Beechmont Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic — even during the months before lifesaving vaccines were widely available — a core of at least 15 volunteers has been working with immigrant children to help boost the non-traditional instruction they were receiving from their teachers. The Rev. Debbie Braaksma, who retired about 18 months ago after serving as the Africa area coordinator for Presbyterian World Mission, appeared Monday on Between Two Pulpits, a weekly broadcast put on by Special Offerings and hosted this week by Dr. Bill McConnell and the Rev. Emily Enders Odom. Watch their conversation with Braaksma here.
A church that reflects its diverse community, Beechmont heeded the call from the Rev. Elmer Zavala to put together a program to aid people from Honduras seeking asylum, said Braaksma, a parish associate at Beechmont. Zavala helped to identify the families with the most need, and Beechmont opened The Learning Hub, which during the worst months of the pandemic ministered to children five days per week, seven hour each day.
“We said, ‘This is an essential service. We aren’t vaccinated, but we are going to make sure these kids will receive academic, social and spiritual support — and just have fun together,’” Braaksma said, adding that the children had spent many weeks “cooped up in their homes.” That morphed into a summer program in 2021, then returned to its school year programming after parents asked organizers to continue working with their children.
The program now serves 20 children three hours per day after school Monday through Thursday. “It is very much a work of faith,” Braaksma told McConnell and Odom, who volunteers weekly in the program. “We said we are making the road as we are walking … Pastor Elmer says it’s these kids’ salvation. We have developed good relationships with them and their families, and we do intensive case management with the families. It’s exciting and it’s hard, but it’s our calling.”
“It’s pretty much an all-voluntary staff, but we have transportation, snack and program expense needs,” Braaksma said. “I worked with that program internally for many years. It’s nice to do the work on both sides of the water.”
Braaksma said many families with whom volunteers work “have gone through a brutal asylum experience. They are really in survival mode. They have to be. Many were marginalized in their own society and cheated out of a good education.” Now that they’re in the United States, many “aren’t able to provide the extra things you would want for your kids. They might be working three part-time jobs and they don’t know the language. Some of our parents have early elementary education and have been traumatized, and we have kids who have experienced a lot of brutality.”
Beechmont volunteers do trauma healing work with children and “help parents to understand what trauma with their children looks like,” Braaksma said.
Once a month, children and their families are taken somewhere fun — Cedar Ridge Camp and the Louisville Zoo among them. “I am getting really good at asking for volunteers and for organizations to give us free tickets,” Braaksma said. “We go to the library or get involved in judo — whatever we can do to enrich their lives and support their parents.”
“There are generous people,” McConnell said, “who just need to be asked.”
Asked which lectionary passage she’d select if she were preaching this coming Sunday, Braaksma immediately went to John 20:19-31, which includes the confession of the disciple we know today as Doubting Thomas.
“I think about Doubting Thomas and the way that when we saw this need among us, it was kind of scary,” Braaksma said. “Dealing with the pandemic was hard, and we were bringing a bunch of kids into church during the pandemic.” Volunteers joked that “we were preparing for surgery as well as teaching,” she said. “We were sanitizing everything.”
“There were times we doubted, but what motivated us so much is the fact that Elmer is so active in the church.” In worship during the prayers of the people, Zavala would “share stories of what families from Honduras were going through. I think his stories helped us overcome the doubt. We realized we had to do something and to look at what God could do and not just what we could do.”
“Beechmont can speak a word into the doubt of small churches who think they might not be able to undertake something like this,” Odom said. “God’s hand was clearly there.” There are times when activities at The Learning Hub “are a little rambunctious,” Odom said. “But isn’t that the spirit of Pentecost?”
Asked by McConnell to describe her hope for the church, Braaksma supplied a straightforward answer: “My hope is that we faithfully live out the gospel of Jesus Christ,” she said. “He gave us a wonderful example of how to be reconciled to God. Most of the time he was hanging out with the marginalized, people who were hurting, outsiders and people standing up for justice. My hope is we can see the world with the eyes of Jesus.”
“I still believe in global connections,” Braaksma said. “My hope is we have good partnerships cross-culturally and look to our neighbors. Let’s make the road by walking and by serving our neighborhoods too.”
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Categories: Special Offerings, World Mission
Tags: asylees, beechmont presbyterian church, between two pulpits, cedar ridge camp, covid-19, doubting thomas, dr. bill mcconnell, educate a child transform the world, honduras, john 20:19-31, louisville zoo, pandemic, pentecost offering, Rev. Debbie Braaksma, rev. elmer zavala, rev. emily enders odom, Special Offerings, the learning hub, the spirit of pentecost
Ministries: Special Offerings, World Mission