“These families have tattooed my soul.”

I met the Rev. Dr. Helen Boursier while serving on a committee she chaired within our denomination. Since then, I have admired her deep devotion to a group of people she would never have met without a faith that compels her to action. She has let these people “tattoo her soul.” Frankly, her witness continues to convince me of the need to act in my own life. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), she shares the arc of her journey.

Since 2014, I’ve been a volunteer chaplain with refugee families seeking asylum. Together, we have talked, laughed, sung songs, shared time in worship, made artwork, wept, and prayed. Most of these asylum seekers have been young women with small children who are fleeing violence and death threats in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Serving as a volunteer chaplain is my Christ-centered response to Jesus’s proclamation: “Whatever you have done for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done for me.” (Mt 25:40)

The preparation for my spiritual journey of love and hospitality started long before I first visited the detained families. It began over a decade earlier with my sense of disconnect from the Christian church and its increasing disregard for the ethical teachings of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount and many of his parables. Disheartened, I saw that the church is too often a social club of like-minded members who look, believe, and act like people of the world, rather than disciples called by Jesus to challenge and change injustice. However, despite my disillusionment, I still wanted to continue as a Christ-follower.

Ironically, in the middle of my disappointment with the formal Christian church, I sensed God calling me to vocational ordained ministry. After completing the education and ordination requirements, I became the organizing and senior pastor of a new church start in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The job came with no funding, no building, no land, no people: go build a church from scratch! It felt like God was calling me to “put up, or shut up,” challenging me to put into practical action Jesus’s teachings so that “right belief” intersected with “right action.” Community Fellowship Presbyterian Church in New Braunfels, Texas began with core values to be uplifting, friendly, welcoming, spiritual, fun, Christ-centered, and culturally relevant. The church’s DNA was to welcome every possible type of diversity with radical hospitality and unconditional love. The congregation responded to the community with a spirituality of love and hospitality by being fully present in whatever capacities and contexts.

Then, in 2014, I received an invitation to chair the Mission Outreach and Justice Committee for 150 Presbyterian churches located in central and south Texas. I had been so busy planting a church that I hadn’t realized what this committee oversaw. I did some homework and research to familiarize myself with its areas of concern. This included an immigration task force formed in response to the large influx of unaccompanied minors and young families seeking asylum at the southern border of the U.S.

I began volunteering with many of these families as Pastora Helena. As Dr. Boursier, I had been writing about the racist policies and practices centered on immigration, but this was firsthand experience. As thousands of detained mothers shared their personal stories of trauma, courage, and love, it suffused my academic perspective with deep love and compassion. As one ministry colleague said, “Your experience with these families has tattooed your soul.” These families became my lifelong forever friends.

Their witness to my spirit intersected with the words of Dorothee Soelle, a prominent German theologian who began teaching after the Nazi regime ended. In her memoire, Soelle said she was appalled by the complicity, through silence, of the German people and their repeated excuse, “We didn’t know…” She made it her life’s mission to ensure that people around her would never again give that same lame excuse regarding injustice in our world. Her words and work inspired me to unmask the racist policies and practices meted out against immigrants seeking asylum.

To this day—through teaching, public speaking, and advocacy—I bear witness with these families. I hope and pray that my writing provides historical documentation for future generations. Each book I research and write becomes a learning experience that reinforces my spiritual journey of solidarity with these wonderful mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who are desperately seeking asylum in the United States of America.

You can find out more about Helen and her ministry at her website.

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