bekah-malpass-story.jpgIf you had asked me just a few years ago if attending seminary was in my five-year plan, I probably would have asked if you were feeling okay! Even after making the decision to attend Candler, I remained hesitant. However, much of that hesitation dissipated when I began exploring the sites for the Contextual Education I requirement. When I saw New American Pathways on the list, I knew right away I made the right choice for graduate school.

One of the things that led to me coming to Candler was an experience I had working with the refugee community in nearby Clarkston during the summer of 2019. As an associate producer for CLARKSTON Film (working title), I got to learn about the unique community of refugees and friends living in Clarkston, and even edited an interview with the director of New American Pathways, one of Clarkston’s refugee resettlement agencies. While my experience in 2019 helped orient me to the refugee community in Clarkston, I knew I wanted to dive deeper relationally with the people living there. The opportunity to partner with New American Pathways for Con Ed I was the perfect way to do that.

My Con Ed cohort dove right into our work tutoring English with New American Pathway’s English at Home Program. As a former English tutor, I figured this would be a natural fit for me. However, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a significant barrier to this work. Rather than being able to visit our clients in their homes, both helping them with their English skills and building relationships with them and their families, we shifted to conduct our classes over video chat. Many New Americans have limited access to technology, so sometimes video chat looks like FaceTime, WhatsApp, or Zoom, depending on the day and the client. 

The English at Home program is a great opportunity to help people with their English skills, but moreover, it is good practice in the ministry of presence. The limitations provided by the pandemic called into question my preconceived notions of what “presence” actually means. I spent the first semester frustrated at the lack of connection between me and my clients and longed for the day when we could meet in person. But as the pandemic continued, meeting in-person never became an option. As such, my classmates and I had to lean into the discomfort that comes with remote tutoring and come up with creative ways to be both effective tutors and present, caring friends.

Some days, this looked like forgoing a formal “lesson” in favor of catching up on what was happening in my clients’ lives, or asking them about their families or their favorite things to do. What began as a frustrating barrier became something that taught me a lot about being present with people in times of trouble, and meeting them where they are rather than where I wished they would be. I learned to be more flexible, worrying less about results and progress and more about the strength of the relationships I was building and the health of my New American friends. 

My time with New American Pathways taught me much about the Lord’s patience. It has allowed me to be involved in the lives of New Americans and refugee families living just a few miles from Emory’s campus. Working with New American Pathways was the perfect fit for me, even if things did not always go as I planned. Moving forward with my degree at Candler, I know practicing the ministry of presence with New Americans will be a permanent part of my life. Working with refugees has taught me that race, ethnicity, and religion need not be a barrier to the pursuit of God’s shalom. Rather, through empathy, connection, and the simple act of being present – even over Zoom – we can create space for flourishing and life-changing relationships.