Ministry at the Border

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Minda Schweizer

Abigail and Minda

Last week I accompanied my high school daughter to Tijuana. Abigail, a volunteer teacher with Little Brushstrokes, a program for refugee children, wanted to bring art to the migrant caravan children. And since she has been in Spanish immersion classes since elementary school, she could teach in Spanish.

Abigail talked with World Relief Southern California, a provider of immigrant legal services, and arranged for us to go to Tijuana with them. While World Relief provided asylum counsel to migrants, Abigail would do art with children waiting for their parents. I was Abigail’s assistant and got to witness first person the border situation; invaluable to me as founder of a non-profit called Home for Refugees which helps faith and community groups partner with refugee families to welcome, help resettle, and create new homes here in the United States.

The week before, we saw that tear gas had been used at a border demonstration and that the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry had been closed temporarily. Abigail and I wondered what it was going to be like.

  • Would we see crowds of migrants when we entered Tijuana?
  • Would we find space to set up our art class?
  • Would it be chaotic?

Our day was different than we imagined. When we walked over the PedWest pedestrian crossing with the World Relief legal representatives, fewer people than we expected occupied the square. The plaza was calm and orderly. Looking around, I noticed border guards set up about 100 feet from the entrance to the U.S. and in another corner a group of migrants listening to numbers being called out one at a time.

Jose Serrano, the director of Little Brushstrokes and Senior Legal Services Specialist of World Relief Southern California, pointed out what was going on around us. He said, “See that door over there to go back to the U.S? Legally anyone is able to go up to that that door and say ‘I’m afraid’ and ask for asylum.” Then he pointed out the border guards set up about 100 feet from that door and shared that the guards were checking IDs and allowing only people who are permitted to go into the U.S. past them. The guards directed the migrants to another part of the plaza where numbers were being called.

Jose explained that twice a day, morning and afternoon, 100 numbers are called out. Roughly 10 numbers represent a family group, which means about 20 families get called a day, allowing them to start the process of asking for asylum. Some days the number calling sessions are arbitrarily cancelled. That happened in the afternoon. Jose explained that the migrants themselves created this system. The migrants elect representatives from their group to organize the system and the number caller is a migrant. Seeing this, I wondered, “What is going on behind the scenes here?” “Is this arranged to get around the federal law that guarantees the right to seek asylum?”

I couldn’t dwell on speculating. Abigail and I had a job to do: making beaded bracelets with the migrant children. Jose told Abigail to set up next to the group of migrants listening for their numbers. As Abigail and I set up, Jose stood up on the curb to gather a crowd and to explain their rights as asylum-seekers and the procedure to follow to make a solid case for asylum. Sadly, most migrants don’t have the benefit of legal counsel before applying for asylum, which often results in not having the right paperwork and disqualifying them from passing the initial stages of seeking asylum. The World Relief legal representatives worked their way through the group hearing individual stories and giving counsel.

The children were happy to string bead bracelets. The potential craziness that Abigail and I wondered about never happened. The children were polite, taking turns picking out beads. Parents came over to see what was happening and got big smiles. Some of the parents sat with their kids and helped them finish their bracelets. One of the children said he made it for his mother and asked me to tie the bracelet on her wrist.

I have sometimes observed God’s tangible and loving presence in marginalized and vulnerable populations, those Christians are called to come alongside. I certainly felt that presence on this day. To be able to interact with the children and make bracelets with them was one meaningful and empowering way Abigail and I found to show our support to the migrants in Tijuana.

Minda Schweizer holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the founder and president of Home for Refugees U.S.A. You can learn more about their work at

A Ministry of Listening to Stories

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Robin Clardy

Ministry takes different forms. As a Presbyterian pastor in a validated ministry, I provide pastoral counseling, spiritual direction, and church consultation on end-of-life issues. In my elected position as moderator for the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, I moderate business and committee meetings, install pastors, and represent and speak on behalf of the presbytery at ceremonies and special meetings. In all of this I am called upon to preach, teach, and present at workshops and retreats. No matter the setting I find that people desire to be known, accepted, and loved. We want to know that our actions serve a purpose and our lives have meaning.

I am grateful to listen to people tell their stories, which can be messy, disorganized, or in transition. They can be filled with pain, tragedy, longing, and loss. They come from people who have known great wealth or scrape to get by. They come young and old alike. How we tell our stories and own our stories matters. How we are allowed to have our stories matters. It takes time to unpack our stories.

I hear many stories. Los Ranchos just celebrated 50 years of stories in grand style at one of our churches. We worked hard to tell stories of our successes and challenges. We invited churches to tell their stories. They highlighted where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. These many and different voices told our collective story.

Photo from Los Ranchos Presbytery Facebook page

I also visit our churches and new worshipping communities, where I hear the stories of their hopes and their challenges. I have found faithful 90-year olds who still serve and care for others in the congregation. I have discovered deacons who maintain relationships with members long past their ability to attend church. I have heard from pastors challenged by their aging congregations and saddened by the continual stream of memorial services they officiate. I talk with pastors, elders, and members who are committed to rolling up their sleeves to pitch in and build houses for those needing sustainable, affordable housing. I’ve listened to those who are doing jail ministry, refugee resettlement, shower ministry, after-school programs, working on behalf of farm workers’ rights, ending gun violence, rights for the mentally ill, #me-too movement; this is just scratching the surface.

I let these stories inform me as I help lead the presbytery. I learn from those who live a different life, speak a different language, have a different culture, and face different challenges. I hear, and I learn. I‘ve learned that we are the same: we need to be respected, listened to, appreciated, equipped, resourced, and allowed to do what God has put in our hearts. I’ve learned the importance of stepping aside so that someone else can step in. I have learned to be silent so that someone might speak up. I’ve learned to slow down and consider that which I see with my eyes, but have no understanding of. I’ve learned to let people tell their stories in their way and to speak up when it is helpful and needed.

I pray that we all take time to listen to the stories of those around us, those in our church, presbytery, community. Listen for people’s longings, hopes, desires. Listen to how they want to belong. We all can do this, pastor, moderator, elder, layperson alike. And may our horizons be broadened by our understanding and learn from these stories. May we build bridges to cross the divide that separates us.

Robin Clardy, a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, and former hospice chaplain, is moderator of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos.

Ministry from North to South

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Karen Claassen

More than 2 decades ago I said to my spouse, “How could we not raise our daughter in a place that talks about bald eagles like city people talk about pigeons?” This sentiment sums up my experience of ministry in the West. Alaska, Washington, the greater Los Angeles megalopolis…these have been my stomping grounds. All are larger than life.

The communal faith life in these places is tenuous. Sometimes demographics just don’t fit denominational goals. Sometimes the local way of life works against the imposed model of church. Sometimes the flaws in the context undermine engagement. What do I mean?

Six months after ordination, at my first COM meeting, I asked, “Why are you considering closing that church?” The conversation that ensued shaped my next twenty-plus years in PCUSA ministry. Why this church and not that church? Did numbers matter? Which number mattered more: people in the building on Sunday morning or churches in the community?

If a PCUSA congregation was the only faith gathering in a small place, why would the presbytery close the church? (Or really, shut down the building? No outsider can “close” the church; it would just move to someone’s living room.) Because some city person says the town or congregation is too small? How small is too small to deserve an organized, connectional gathered community? What happened to “Where two or three gather in my name, I am there with them”?

The little church we discussed at that first COM meeting was in an Alaskan village whose population fluctuated from 200 to 350 people, depending on the season. Five years after that conversation, 80 attended Easter worship. 25-40% of the town was in the worship service. How many churches can say that? How do we measure success and viability in such a situation? That is ministry in much of the Western half of the United States: small congregations serving remote communities, often as the only organized representative of Christ.

Then there is the challenge of always meeting on Sundays. In the Pacific Northwest, subsistence or recreation or work consume the weekend. How is a congregation to gather if the people are scattered? Perhaps the answer lies, as one PCUSA church found, in running a Thursday night service during the summer that exactly mirrored the Sunday morning service. It was so successful for three summers that it became a permanent, year-round offering. Washington hunters deserve to gather for worship too.

Imagine my surprise my first three-day weekend after moving to Los Angeles. I planned for low numbers, constructing a beautiful, intimate, interactive experience that could not be done on a Sunday with the regular attendance. But the context had changed. A three-day weekend in Southern California offers time to get a lot of chores done and light traffic, so the worship service becomes a priority. There were MORE people than usual. It wrecked my plans and reminded me of the importance of understanding where I minister.

Each place I served is different. And yet, all my Western service, regardless of the locale, the communal faith life has proven tenuous. None of those areas could boast even a 30% church rate among the population. Each is a mission field that requires creativity and tenacity — and the ability to not lose one’s temper when someone from Louisville or Philadelphia calls at 5:00 or 6:00 AM, “the start of the business day.”

Karen Claassen has served congregations in four states and six presbyteries for the past 20 years, helping people encounter and love the Spirit more intensely. She constantly explores changing modes of discipleship and outreach in the 21st century in order to live her zeal for equipping Christians and encouraging congregations into a brighter future.

Unexpected Learning

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Candie Blankman

A woman was visiting some very good friends of mine and they brought her to worship. My friend had told me that this woman was largely un-churched. Her father was an atheist, a controlling husband who forbid his wife to bring her and her brother to church. Knowing this, I was very curious about how this woman experienced our worship service. When I asked her what she thought, she responded surprisingly fast. “Kind of preachy,” she said.

I was taken aback, to say the least. I am a preacher. She was a guest in a gathering where preaching is the centerpiece of the service. My insecure, autopilot, preachy self almost kicked in. Somehow, the Spirit of God prevented me. I suddenly realized that this woman may have a whole lot to teach me. In a moment of spiritual openness I realized this woman was the kind of person that the church — disciples — was given the Holy Spirit to go and proclaim the good news to. I wanted to hear about what that was like.

We connected via email to begin a conversation where I was the student and she was the teacher. I told her I wanted to learn from her “un-churched” experience. She was very receptive. She said she had wanted to talk to someone about her experience related to the church and faith for a very long time. So often as Christians we are so afraid of offending people. We are so sure they are so hostile or so uninterested that we don’t even bother to try and have a conversation. I have learned this is hardly ever the case. When I approach others with honest curiosity about their experience and take time to listen, they are not offended or put off. They are eager to talk.

This woman had more “church” in her than I could have ever imagined. Her mother was a Christian and had an uncle who was a Methodist minister. She doesn’t remember exactly when it was but she described the event in vivid detail. Her mother took her and her brother to a forest preserve near where they lived. The Methodist minister came along. In a small clearing in the woods was an old bird bath. There in the middle of the forest preserve with the only other witnesses being birds and ground squirrels who lived there, in the birdbath, the Methodist minister baptized her and her brother. Yes. You read that right. She and her brother were baptized in a birdbath in the woods.

I was without words, a rare occasion for me. The silence lasted long enough that she finally broke it with a question. “Does that count?” she asked. More silence. But now it was not silence caused by surprise. It was silence caused by awe. Finally, I realized she was interpreting my silence as disapproval. I broke the silence with an excited and enthusiastic, “Does that count?! Does that count?! That is one of the most powerful baptism stories I have ever heard!”

And that was not the beginning or the end of her story. I have learned so much from her. And I do not know it all yet! But what started out as a seemingly judgmental response about preaching turned into the opportunity of a lifetime to learn how God was at work in the life of another person who had spent very little time inside a church. I have since learned to listen more carefully, respond much less quickly, and ask as many questions as a person will tolerate. I have since learned many more lessons from the most unexpected people about how God is about the business of calling to people to experience his love and grace and mercy. And, I have learned that sometimes I am being called on to be a part of that work and sometimes I am just the student learning how it has been done. Funny thing is I think that learning this has also made me a better preacher. Ha! Who knew?!

Candie Blankman is Minister of Discipleship and Care at San Clemente Presbyterian Church in San Clemente, CA. You can visit her website to learn how this and other similar conversations have become a congregation wide ministry of listening, learning and presence called Groundings.

Ministry on the Pacific Coast

by Susan Young-Thornton

The first image that comes to mind when hearing “the Pacific Coast” is one of Beach-Boy-sunny-shores, surfers, bikini-clad sunbathers, and children building sand castles. But there is so much more.

The U. S. Pacific Coast stretches from sun-drenched San Diego to Alaska’s frigid Aleutian Islands. The territory in between is as varied as these two extremes suggest: America’s hot spot, Death Valley; the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe; the snow-capped volcanic mountains of Oregon and Washington; the mighty, electricity-producing waters of the Columbia River; the life-sustaining, food-producing soil of California’s Central Valley; Redwood forests and gigantic Sequoias. Pull out your atlas and explore God’s infinitely creative imagination.

Photo from Los Ranchos Presbytery Facebook page.

The communities that have arisen in this landscape are equally diverse: crowded, traffic-jammed cities; planned suburbs; small towns; one stop-sign rural villages; family farms; and large scale agri-business enterprises. Imagine the multiple interests, needs, and conflicting opinions of the inhabitants of glamorous Hollywood; innovative Silicon Valley; artsy, foodie Portland; fire-ravaged Paradise; tech giant Seattle; bucolic college towns; the threatened Arctic tundra; sprawling national parks and forests; and the manicured lawns of master-planned Irvine.

The Chumash, Washoe, Umpqua, Chelan, Skokomish, Aleut, Haida, and their hundreds of indigenous people cousins were joined in this land by successive waves of immigrants from around the globe. Some came as explorers and conquerors, some as settlers, some to satisfy the endless need for cheap labor. Others migrated to settle farms, rush for gold, escape persecution, find adventure, study the natural wonders, flee the dust bowl, seek employment when rust belt factories closed, bask in the warmth of sunnier skies, and to seek asylum from the horrors of war, violence, natural disasters, famine, and disease.

The people differ across this vast expanse. Their needs are unique to their context and also universal. Great diversity can be found within small communities. A case in point is Orange County, California. This 948 square mile county, located on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego, ranges from sea level to 5,690 feet in elevation and is inhabited by 3.19 million people. Its namesake orange groves are all but extinct, replaced by Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, luxurious resorts, single-family homes, condo complexes, apartment buildings, huge shopping centers, strip malls, and freeways. The county is a mix of older cities with quaint downtowns, newer cities with gleaming high-rises, street corners populated with sign-holding homeless, now-banned riverbed tent cities, McMansions, and sprawling suburbs.

The population hails from every corner of the earth and is now 44% non-Hispanic white. The non-white majority includes Hispanic and Latinx from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. One in five people are of Asian origin, hailing from Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Laos, plus the largest concentration of people of Vietnamese heritage outside Vietnam. Persons of African heritage are approximately 2% of the population. Orange County, the birthplace of the John Birch Society, has just elected Democrats to all 8 of its U.S. House seats.

The presbytery of Los Ranchos, which encompasses all of Orange County and a pie-shaped slice of an equally diverse Los Angeles County, ministers in this complex, confusing, multi-lingual, culture-rich environment. Its churches and their members are neighbors to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, Wiccans, the spiritual but not religious, agnostics, and atheists. Worship services are conducted in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Swahili, Khmer, and English.

What is true for Orange County and Los Ranchos is also true for the entire Pacific Coast region. It is diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex. The work of the church is the same as it has always been – to speak a word of hope, to work for justice, to embody the love of God to all people. This holy work takes many forms inside church buildings and on the streets. The struggle and the blessing of living into God’s Kin-dom in this region is an ongoing story to be shared with you by those in the trenches in this month’s blog series. Join us.

Susan Young-Thornton serves as the Spiritual Formation Consultant to the Presbytery of Los Ranchos.