The Presbytery of the Pacific’s immigrant organizer understands the differences
By Rae Huang | Presbyterians Today
The world currently faces a refugee crisis of unprecedented scale, caused by issues including violence, war, environmental degradation and poverty. The scale can be overwhelming, but for one Los Angeles-based former asylum seeker, those issues are personal.
Earlier this year, René Anita Chombeng was hired to become the new immigrant organizing coordinator for the Presbytery of the Pacific. The position was held previously by the Rev. Kristi van Nostran, who is now serving in a similar capacity in Riverside and San Gabriel Presbyteries. As both a former asylum seeker and a ruling elder at Calvary Presbyterian Church of Hawthorne, California, Chombeng was inspired to envision a ministry that would support immigrants and asylum seekers such as herself.
Given its location near the border, Southern California is a key location for asylum seekers in the United States. Unfortunately, the conditions that meet those seeking asylum often leave much to be desired. A 2021 California Department of Justice Review of Immigration Detention in California found confinement conditions to be detrimental to detainees’ mental health, “with female detainees facing especially harsh conditions.” Among other issues, the facilities were found to have insufficient language support and legal resources for detainees.
Challenges for African asylum seekers are particularly acute.
“One of the reasons I took the position is that I am Cameroonian, and I came to this country as an asylum seeker,” said Chombeng. “I understand the difficulties and the challenges that come with the process.”
But when she started working, Chombeng realized that most of the immigration policies and organizations were geared toward Central American refugees.
“The African refugees were hidden somewhere. Culturally we are different. One size does not fit all. We must do something culturally specific, and I think I can help Africans through the program,” she said. “I am all for immigrant-based, sustainable accompaniment services. When we work with the community rather than for the community, our actions become sustainable as they tend to meet the priority needs of the community as decided by them.”
The Rev. Heidi Worthen Gamble, mission catalyst of the Presbytery of the Pacific, sought Chombeng out for the role because of her unique perspective.
“The Black immigrant community is particularly oppressed and underserved, especially Black women. Most recent Black immigrants are from Haiti and Cameroon, and have been subject to cruel deportations, even under the Biden administration. We are already working with our Matthew 25 SoCal movement, which primarily serves Latinx immigrants from Central America; together, we can reach a larger unmet population of asylum seekers.”
Chombeng’s ministry focuses on immigrant-based accompaniment services divided into four areas: accompaniment services, resource navigation and referrals, capacity development and advocacy with an emphasis on mindfulness and trauma-informed care.
“As an African woman, we go through a lot of trauma and depression, but we don’t even have words for those experiences. One of my main goals is to help with these traumas,” said Chombeng.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Chombeng’s ministry is her vision of working from the ground up.
“My belief stems from the slogan: ‘Nothing about us without us’ — it’s the person who wears the shoe that knows where it pinches,” she said, adding that sometimes people just need a little push to move forward, and the push might not be what we are seeing. “Until you talk to them, you might not know what they need. You may give them things just to please yourself, and to feel satisfied that you have done something, but it’s not sustainable, it’s not impactful. We work from the need to the service, not the service to the need.”
And for Chombeng, that vision is bigger than Los Angeles County. When she started in her new position, Africans from outside of California started contacting her for help. Chombeng reached out to the Rev. Susan Krehbiel at Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Amanda Craft of the Presbyterian Office of Immigration Issues for assistance.
“Our hope for the future is that our Presbyterian Church can have a whole department working with immigrants and refugees and supporting them with resource referral and navigation services,” said Chombeng. “Our ministry in Los Angeles is the guinea pig for that vision.”
Adds Worthen Gamble, “Nationally, we need people to advocate. Most of our California representatives and senators support pro-immigrant legislation. But what we really need are Presbyterians across the country meeting with their legislators and advocating on behalf of our community. What we need is just and humane immigration laws.”
In Los Angeles County, that vision of advocacy and support is one step closer to reality with Chombeng’s inspiring, immigrant-driven ministry.
Rae Huang is a member of the Presbytery of the Palisades and a freelance writer.
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