Noah Westfall builds community wherever he happens to be
July 31, 2019
During his junior year at Santa Clara University in California, Noah Westfall learned about the need for volunteers to assist new immigrants preparing for U.S. citizenship exams through the Immigration and Citizenship Program in Santa Clara County.
“I assisted with writing exercises and used flash cards to help the students study American history, geography and civics,” Westfall said. “I soon learned how difficult it is to become a U.S. citizen.”
His work with immigrants reminded Westfall of the stories his grandparents shared with him about their growing-up years in a rural village in southern China, as well as their immigration to America to escape the turmoil of the Chinese Communist Revolution. He said he has reaped the benefits of his grandparents’ tremendous courage and hard work.
“Strangers do not just come from across our shores,” Westfall said. “We have marginalized people in our own neighborhoods, people who are alienated and suffering in our own communities. Whether they are refugees, immigrants or our neighbors, I believe everyone is welcome to the table.”
Westfall said his volunteer work in the citizenship exam practice sessions, held at the Center for Employment Training in San Jose, were especially meaningful and led him to apply to serve as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV), based on the campus of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. The YAV program, an ecumenical ministry of Presbyterian Mission, offers a faith-based year of service for 19-to-30-year-olds at sites throughout the U.S. and around the world.
Work placement is a significant part of every YAV experience. Westfall’s work with Texas Impact and its sister organization, the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy, has involved grassroots education and public advocacy aimed at addressing social issues to help policymakers improve conditions for families and communities throughout Texas.
Westfall’s YAV experience has included spending a week in Tucson and Agua Prieta, Mexico, for a Frontera de Cristo border ministries immersion trip with several other YAV sites. “We shared meals with those migrating and had an opportunity to listen to the stories and experiences of people living on the border,” Westfall said. “We were shown such hospitality.”
The immersion experience was an eye-opener in that the YAVs were simply asked to be present in the space and listen, not to do or fix anything. “It required a shift in perspective,” he said. “I’m beginning to realize that if one wants to make a difference, one needs to live in that community and imbed themselves in that space, rather than arriving for a short time and leaving.”
One evening during the border ministry immersion, Westfall and the other YAVs took part in a prayer vigil with several people in the Agua Prieta community. Each person was given several white crosses, each bearing the names of people who had died while trying to cross the border. Also written on the crosses were the birthdates of the deceased and the dates their bodies were found.
“We walked along a busy street going into the port of entry on the U.S. side,” Westfall said. “It was powerful to hold the cross in my hand, feeling the weight of the names; to see the dates and realize that some were not far off from my own.
“It was powerful to see the drivers looking over, perhaps some reading the names,” he said. “Maybe they knew one of those names?”
The vigil reminded him of his own grandparents and how they were fortunate to have escaped the revolution in China. “I’ve heard stories about how my gong gong [grandfather] shined shoes in the city to support his family and eventually saved enough money to go to college. They worked hard and took a leap of faith to find a better life in America.”
“Holding the crosses made me sad because it represented a broken dream,” Westfall said.
“The promise that my grandparents were able to achieve is not a reality for so many people.”
Westfall said, “A white cross cannot replace a life. The prayer vigil was a good reminder for me and my calling as a Christian. I am working to build a world where we finally do not need to carry crosses for people trying to cross.”
Tammy Warren, Communications Associate, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Young Adult Volunteer
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Lord, we thank you for the young leaders who work in your church. Continue to bless them and sustain them with your love and grace. Amen.