Alicia Horst '01, MDiv '06, talks with The Mennonite about growing up in Italy, her interest in immigration justice, and how her time at Eastern Mennonite Seminary impacts her current work as executive director of NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center in Harrisonburg, Virginia. "I never went to seminary with the intent of being a pastor or being in church leadership in that capacity," she says. "Some of my current work especially involves hearing people’s faith story." (Courtesy photo)

Alicia Horst, executive director of NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center, talks about her faith, education and work

Alicia Horst ’01, MDiv ’06, was recently featured in “Seven Questions With …,” a new weekly online feature of The Mennonite which highlights Anabaptist individuals “engaged in important work and ministry across the country” as they talk “about their life, work, spiritual disciplines and influences.”

A “third culture kid,” Horst spent much of her childhood in Italy while her parents were missionaries. She attended Hesston College and transferred to Eastern Mennonite University, where she majored in social work. Horst also earned a graduate degree at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. In this interview, Horst notes that “Being in seminary has really provided a context for listening through a pastoral care lens.”

Horst is executive director of NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which was founded by Susannah Lepley, EMU’s director of multicultural services and international student services.  Horst worships with The Table in Harrisonburg.


Tell me about your church experience growing up. How did you get connected to Mennonite Church USA?

My parents grew up conservative Mennonites, and my family moved to southern Italy when I was five months old. By the time I was born they weren’t quite as conservative, so I guess you could consider them evangelical Mennonites at that time. They didn’t dress conservatively, but that was part of their background. They were sent to Italy through what’s now considered to be Virginia Mennonite Missions to work with churches in Sicily. There has been a presence of Mennonites in Italy since the 1960’s [technically, the first Italian Mennonite baptism that led to the churches in Sicily happened in 1949, but church formation started later], so it’s a relatively new Anabaptist community. We moved there and my dad pastored a church. I lived there until I was 13.

So I’ve always been connected to some form of the Mennonite church my whole life, but the community that I grew up in wasn’t ‘culturally Mennonite.’

I had a Mennonite educational experience from high school on, at Eastern Mennonite School, Hesston (Kan.) College and then Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). A couple years later, I went to seminary at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For different reasons over time, I’ve claimed different aspects of the Mennonite faith. I think specifically Hesston exposed me to social justice aspects of the Mennonite faith and then by the time I transferred into EMU, I decided to study social work. I think the social justice theological stream was something I was exposed to later in my Mennonite experience, which was interesting because some folks would say that’s all Mennonites are about.

What would you say you learned from or appreciated about the Italian Mennonite communities you were a part of?

The Italian Mennonite Church taught me that the construct of family can go far beyond biological relationship. That community was my childhood family.

Also, one thing that surprised me when I moved to the United States was how young children were baptized. Italian Mennonites were really wanting to be distinct from Roman Catholics [the state religion in Italy]. Teenagers might get baptized, but not preteens or younger. In that particular church context, people that chose to come to Italian Mennonite churches were really looking for something different and potentially had had a conversion experience. There was an interest in more personal connections to faith and that’s possibly why they would have been attending our congregation.

One of the things that has been fascinating for me as an adult is to explore reasons why people connect with church. I can appreciate now as an adult that for some people it’s just because they were born into it and some people are connected because it’s a part of their identity and who they are and some come on their own. It’s fascinating to me because in the Italian Mennonite church, it’s very much an intentional choice to become Mennonite. You choose that community.

When did you first start to get educated or interested in immigration justice?

The concept of consulates was a part of my childhood. I lived as a foreigner abroad, so my family needed to renew passports or other documents. I have these memories as a child of needing to do that kind of work.

And I left Europe in 1992, which was at the height of changes in the Eastern part of Europe. Especially the island of Sicily is a place where people traveling by sea end up. So I remember as a child being exposed to Albanians that were fleeing after political changes. Throughout my whole growing up experience, there would have been a steady stream of north African immigrants (nothing like we are hearing now, with Syrians traveling through north Africa and then taking boats to Europe). There would have often been vendors on the street, on the beaches, and other places who were from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and those areas.

When so many Albanians came, they set up a camp of sorts. It was a receiving area and my father and some other folk decided to bring in musicians to have a concert so that people who were stuck there for a period of time could have an evening to enjoy life. I remember going with my dad and walking around before the event happened. Seeing so many people that were kind of stuck in tents or various other arrangements definitely made an impression.

And then in university I studied Spanish, which was very similar to Italian. My language was my connection to immigration issues. As a social worker, people would find out that I spoke Spanish fluently and then I was often assigned cases where people spoke Spanish. I was exposed to families that had fled or chosen to move, often under duress of some kind. So choosing to work with immigration issues has been a slow process throughout my life.

Who or what are the mentors or influences who shaped your passions and career energies?

Living in Harrisonburg has by default influenced my work a lot. It depends on the semester, but we have anywhere from 40 to 50 languages spoken by students in our school district. If you are involved in business or nonprofit work, you are going to be exposed to a level of diversity that is phenomenal for the size of this town.

The person who founded New Bridges, Susannah Lepley, was also a friend of mine. She’s a bit older than I am and would have exposed me to some of her work as she was getting the agency started in 2000, about the time I graduated from college. She’s a person that I’ve known for a really long time that’s been connected to this work.

Tell me about your work with New Bridges? What does a normal day look like for you?

It [New Bridges] was started so that churches that were primarily immigrant congregations or those that were accompanying immigrant families would have a place to send folks for more technical questions that average lay people can’t answer.

New Bridges is a resource center that I don’t see modeled many other locations. Most cities that have resources for immigrants tend to focus around English instruction and legal paper work. Since we are a small agency, we’ve tended to focus on what’s most needed and try to keep flexibility in what we offer. At this point for example, there are enough adult education language providers that we don’t need to offer English classes. But over time there was a decrease in locations that would offer legal counsel, so that’s something that we just started offering this year. What’s unique about our agency is that people can come and get help doing a wide variety of things: job applications, access to social services, access to medical help, managing ensuing medical bills … all those kinds of things

A typical day is incredibly varied. [It can include] Anything from meetings out in the community to writing reports and meeting with clients.

How do you think your faith impacts your work? How did seminary impact your work?

I never went to seminary with the intent of being a pastor or being in church leadership in that capacity. Some of my current work especially involves hearing people’s faith story. Being in seminary has really provided a context for listening through a pastoral care lens. I studied formation and spiritual direction, and I took a lot of pastoral counseling classes.

There are times when people are having a hard time finding words to describe trauma, and I find myself in those moments of silence just being present in that moment in a way that has been influenced by my experience in seminary. While those are not easy moments, they are not moments of anxiety or moments where I feel like trying to make things ok for the sake of my own sense of unease. People walk in and say, “I feel peace here.” A woman from Rwanda was sitting in our office and said, “There’s some kind of a blessing here.”

Because a lot of folks come here with really traumatic stories and we talk about who they are as people, they are the ones that indicate to me whether or not they are interested in being connected with a faith community. Safe, sacred spaces in which people can tell stories that are complex are not easy to find. And they may not be found in churches. NewBridges is a place where people can explain that they had to make incredibly difficult choices, like leaving children behind, or fleeing a violent relationship, or negotiating a new culture that values productivity over relationship.

People have asked me to pray for them. But I don’t automatically offer to pray for everyone because a common theme expressed is that pastors or lay leaders, who have a lot of power in congregations, have used prayer as a way to tell people that they should not complain or that their lives are hard because they are not being good enough Christians.

Any advice for people who are just starting to learn about the ways immigration shapes our country?

The average person that’s wanting to become informed will know that it’s not easy to find good information. Even when you are looking for information about the history of immigration policy in the United States, a Google search will turn up some of the most interesting groups that are not always accurate. We have chosen to have World Relief supervise our work. They do have a couple of packets that are actually listed on Mennonite Central Committee’s immigration site as helpful for church leaders or others that want to learn about immigration issues.

I would invite people to learn how to be present and active amongst immigrants. Until you know people who are actually experiencing the effects of it, it’s hard. It’s a challenge for some churches to build relationships among new-coming communities. Until you have friends that are either studying alongside you in universities or have children in the schools where your children are and you get to know them and hear what it’s like to have chosen to be here or end up here (whatever the case may be) and what it’s like to make a life here, it’s hard to imagine. That empathy and that compassion starts to make a difference. The issues become more personal.

Reprinted with permission from The Mennonite