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Using her heart, her time and her gifts for Central American migrants

Kristi Van Nostran named Immigrant Accompaniment Organizer

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Kristi Van Nostran, left, and Marisol, an asylum seeker from Honduras whom Van Nostran has been hosting. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — During six years in El Salvador as a mission co-worker with the Joining Hands Network, Kristi Van Nostran worked to bring people to a common table and create a network to support ongoing efforts around justice and food sovereignty. Now she is working with two Southern California presbyteries to once again walk alongside her Central American brothers and sisters.

With an increase in migrants seeking asylum and Immigration and Customs Enforcement randomly releasing migrants on the street in Southern California, the presbyteries of the Pacific and San Gabriel, with financial support from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, have hired Van Nostran as Immigrant Accompaniment Organizer.

“This position is perfect for my strengths, my passions and my gifts,” she said. “There are so many congregations and individuals in Presbyterian circles that are already engaged in with this work. It is already touching their hearts. They are already asking the questions — how can we best support our immigrant sisters and brothers, particularly those who are seeking asylum?

“We determined that what we need is someone to help coordinate these efforts.  Pastors and presbytery staff are overextended; nobody has the bandwidth to go out and pound the pavement to find out who is doing what and how we can resource one another. I just thought, my years facilitating ministries of accompaniment have trained me to do just that.”

The two Southern California presbyteries applied for a grant from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and thought Van Nostran’s experience made her the perfect candidate to coordinate the program. The idea quickly became a reality.

“Everyone I talked to said, yes, our congregation could benefit from a position like this, a person who can show us how to be involved in the most meaningful ways,” Van Nostran said. “I’ve found that lots of people are interested and excited about doing this work. But it feels so overwhelming, they sometimes just kind of throw up their hands. My goal was to focus on a couple of key asks so that congregations and individuals could engage in ways they felt called and use their resources and gifts to make the most impact.”

The two presbyteries have developed a “three-pillar ministry,” first by encouraging people to open their homes for short- or long-term hosting. The second is the development of “circles of support,” which allow volunteers to offer gifts including transportation, appointment-keeping, grocery store gift cards — or just a casserole and a home visit. They also encourage visits to detention centers to offer accompaniment and spiritual support.

The third pillar is advocacy, speaking up both locally and nationally. Following the action alerts issued by the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., is a timely way to know when and how to speak out. “We need to tell our elected officials that we believe, as Christians, as Presbyterians, that our commitment is to welcome the stranger and to do that with compassion,” she said.

Since November, Van Nostran herself has been hosting Marisol, a female asylum seeker from Honduras. “I thought about how many times hospitality was extended to me and how many times I was welcomed into someone’s home in Central America and now I am able to reciprocate,” Van Nostran said. “That is very meaningful.”

The two of them often go together to talk with churches and groups about the work they are engaged in. “What I have seen change hearts are the personal connections,” Van Nostran said. “If they can meet someone like Marisol and hear firsthand the tragic story of why they left their entire life behind to make this arduous journey, then it starts to sink in. They begin to really think, ‘What would I do if I were in that situation?’”

She said there is a lot of misinformation about those seeking asylum. For instance, asylum seeking is a legal process requiring migrants to physically set foot on U.S. soil. They must arrive at a border and formally request asylum.

She has personally witnessed the painful decisions that some people had to make.

“One young man I worked very closely with was convinced this was the only option for him,” she said. “He was getting threats, he was concerned about putting his family at risk. There are too many pockets in El Salvador where the gangs and organized crime seem to be in complete control. The network of gangs and organized crime is so prolific that even leaving for a different city or going out to the rural areas of the country is not an option because the gangs have people everywhere. Once a family gets into a situation where lives are being threatened, there is simply nowhere else to go.”

She said the churches and programs like Joining Hands work hard to build up communities to be resilient and to create opportunities — particularly for young people, so they can find purpose and gainful employment.

“You risk all by staying or you risk it all by leaving,” she said. “I think that is what many people don’t realize. We live quite comfortably in the U.S. We can’t fathom a situation where we would risk our lives, risk our children’s lives to take a journey that uncertain. That is key. No one would do that if it weren’t their last resort. I’ve heard so many times, ‘We don’t want to leave. We don’t want to leave our extended families, our homes, our land, our country, our language, our heritage, but we don’t feel like we have any other option and there is no one who will protect us here.’”

Walking with Central Americans has been Van Nostran’s life for the past 10 years. She said she finds it very fulfilling to be able to be able to do that again in this new context.

It was in middle school that Van Nostran fell in love with Spanish. She continued to study it in college, earning a bachelor’s degree in the language from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. She studied in Costa Rica, fell in love with the culture and constantly looked for opportunities to go back.

With the support of her home church, First Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Wash., she found that opportunity, serving as a long-term volunteer with the Reconciliation and Mission exchange program with Central America through Pacific Lutheran University. Under the auspices of one of the Church’s global partners, she went to Guatemala City with no job description and no set agenda.

“This opportunity really changed my concept of mission,” she said. “We are not there to change things or simply to give, but to be present and engage in the work our partners are already doing. This accompaniment ministry is where it all came together for me.”

She is now pursuing her Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary and will graduate next summer. Just after returning from El Salvador in 2017 she finished a master’s in leadership and mission from Fuller, but her work in El Salvador affirmed her call to ordained ministry.

The presbyteries of San Gabriel and Pacific have submitted grant proposals to continue to grow the effort synod-wide. They hope to inspire other churches, mid councils and synods to use this model to engage Presbyterians throughout the U.S.

Those wishing to engage in further conversation about this ministry of immigrant accompaniment can send emails to presbywelcome@gmail.com.

View a flyer on the Southern California Immigration Accompaniment Ministry here: presbywelcomeflyer.

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