Rev. Susan Suarez Webster, MeckMin Sydnor Thompson, Jr. Community Leadership Award
Picture this scene: a room filled, in the morning and the evening, with conversation among individuals from varied incomes, cultures, backgrounds—sharing their stories about immigration/migration to Charlotte. Tables consisted of immigrants from all over the world, migrants from the US and native Charlotteans. Participants included parents/staff/Board from Children of the World Learning Center and from ESOL (international), Bright Stars (mostly African American), the YMCA, Church, and community—varied religiously, economically, culturally, politically, linguistically. Conversation was rich, informative and energetic! The rich diversity of the eastside was valued; each person respected for who they were. On a side table, those who wished were invited to sign prepared letters to be mailed to our Congresspersons regarding justice for TPS recipients/immigrants and/or to duplicate through their congregations/organizations.
But how did this happen in the City of Charlotte where so many places, including churches, are so often mostly segregated? This particular scene was made possible by Pastor Susan Suarez Webster supporting the Community-led “Open Table” initiative–but the story that made this possible started years before.
Valued in many faith traditions, a “servant leader,” for Christians, embodies Jesus’ example of leadership. Susan Suarez Webster, affectionately known as “Pastor Susan,” models servant leadership through all that she does individually, within the church, and throughout the community.
Returning to Charlotte after fifteen years of missionary work in Mexico, Pastor Susan and her husband, Pastor Tim, are truly making a difference in the Charlotte community! Pastor Susan’s call was to east Charlotte– Central United Methodist Church, in the heart of the refugee resettlement area. As Assistant Pastor for Community Outreach and with the support of Pastors Michelle Chappell and Pam Blackstock, she has worked as a “bridge-builder” (quoting Pastor Pam)–connecting Central UMC to the community in a powerful way. Only through her prayers, vision, imagination, and hard work—connecting with the surrounding community and enabling the church members to reach out—could this vision have become a reality!
Quoting Pastor Pam, Pastor Susan is a “bridge” to our community. Although her languages are English and Spanish, she connects with our families, including immigrants/refugees, building relationships regardless of language/religion/continent. Central now includes native Charlotteans along with members from five continents and approximately twenty countries, who speak varied languages. This diversity is reflected not only in the congregation but also in worship, fellowship and service. Through her “Summer Suppers,” members have shared stories, enabling people of varied backgrounds economically, culturally, politically, to share and care for one another—a model so needed in Charlotte and in our faith communities.
On an individual level, she and Pastor Tim personally have opened their home to needy refugee children/youth from Burma and Rwanda until finding positive, safe alternatives. This same attention to needs leads her—and other she enlists—to doctors’ offices, courthouses, hospitals, lawyer’s offices, detention hearings, dialysis centers, etc. No need is too small; no challenge too great!
Our church, located within walking distance of a dozen affordable apartment complexes, in the past was mostly empty during the week except for AA. Now, because of Pastor Susan’s response to community needs, we often host community meetings, health screenings, nonprofit groups, and educational opportunities for immigrants/refugees. We offer three eight-week sessions ESOL, including summertime literacy opportunities for children of ESOL students (through grants she garners); host early childhood educational opportunities; provide space for literacy training through the Public Library for Spanish-speaking parents and children; welcome services through the Simmons Y; and provide space for after- school and summer activities through service ministries sponsored by other denominations.
Central now offers a unique multicultural, dual-language Preschool for 3 and 4 year olds, Children of the World Learning Center, which includes early intervention (referrals and parent education) to children B-2, as well, supporting the Smart Start initiative. This community treasure, serving families of varied incomes (sliding scale) from eleven countries, is thriving because of Pastor Susan’s prayerful, tireless, behind-the-scenes leadership in every aspect of this work!
As an advocate for justice and service to those in need, Pastor Susan also provides leadership to numerous community Boards/organizations. Quoting from LAC webpage, “Susan’s passion to serve others and particularly those who speak Spanish motivates her to participate on the Board of the Latin American Coalition,” where she is Board secretary. She is chair of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church Metro District Hispanic/Latino Ministries Committee and Secretary of the Western North Carolina Conference United Methodist Church Hispanic/Latino Ministries Committee. She is a very active member of the Congress of Latin American Organizations of Mecklenburg County, partners regularly with the YMCA on programs benefitting immigrants and is well-known and respected by pastors/faith leaders in the immigrant community—regardless of denomination. She inspired Central to sign and mail to Senators/House Members hundreds of letters advocating for TPS recipients/immigrants, then extending this advocacy opportunity to other community congregations/organizations. She also works directly with leadership for the local TPS-led coalition and rallied approximately 15 people from our congregation (1/2 the busload) to join others from various congregations/organizations on an advocacy trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with our Congressional leaders to support immigrants and to overturn Administration attempts to revoke TPS status from our residents, many of whom have resided in the US for over eighteen years!
(Sydnor Thompson, Jr. Community Leadership Award Recipient: A community leader or an organization who embodies the mission and vision of MeckMIN to promote interfaith collaboration: to foster understanding, compassion, justice and to nurture a community that lives by the highest values and core virtues of our rich faith traditions, respecting the dignity of every person. This person exemplifies leadership and collaboration across differences in the community, fosters interfaith understanding, promotes racial and ethnic understanding, and addresses social needs in the community.)