Kristi Park snaps a selfie with refugee Esmerelda Imbi. (Courtesy Kristi Park)
Kristi Park snaps a selfie with refugee Esmerelda Imbi. (Courtesy Kristi Park)

In the effort to aid refugees in Oregon, the Archdiocese of Portland and the Mormons are best buddies.

For almost four years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints has had a strong alliance with Catholic Charities of Oregon, one of the state’s major ministries for settling refugees.

On a national level, the LDS church funds a grant for refugee services that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops administers. Locally, the Mormons fund lobbying for refugees at the state Capitol in Salem.

When Catholic Charities is about to welcome a weary family from afar and needs an apartment set up, the Latter Day Saints often get the call. Several dozen young Mormons typically show up to move furniture, clean and shop.

“When a new family needs a lot of support, we can really rely on them for a quick response,” said Matthew Westerbeck, who manages refugee services for Catholic Charities.

Other Mormons have proven themselves capable cultural navigators, helping refugee kids do homework and assisting as parents pay bills, ride the bus and manage the bustle of supermarkets.

Local Mormons give refugee families vouchers to pick up household items at Deseret Industries and food at the Bishop’s Warehouse, projects akin to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“It’s a wonderful partnership,” said Westerbeck. “It shows very much that refugee resettlement and welcoming the stranger is very universal. I am glad we can participate in that shared commitment.”

Refugee life is in the religious DNA of Mormons. After their origins in upstate New York in the 1820s, they were harassed and then expelled from Ohio, Missouri and Illinois before making the long trip to the Utah Territory.

That’s in the mind of Kristi Park, leader of the Oregon LDS refugee ministry. Like all positions in the Mormon church, hers is unpaid. Park, who teaches autistic children as a day job, is a member of the Wilsonville Ward, akin to a parish.  

Last year, Catholic Charities named Park its volunteer of the year.

She says one religious group doing good is wonderful. When two groups overlook their differences to help people, it’s even better.

“The cooperation and seamlessness of it speak to how everybody is looking out for others and not for their own agenda,” said Park.

One of her favorite memories: An Iraqi refugee family arrives in the Portland area with two young boys who speak no English. Someone has donated a toy train set. Park, on her first refugee project, gets on the ground and shows the mesmerized lads how to lay track, hook up trains, and push them on their way.

“It was life changing,” Park said.

Since then, she has accompanied families from the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Nepal. She marvels as the families retain their traditions while wishing with all their hearts to be Americans. She knows the presence of refugees is good for the United States.

She has met young girls who know seven languages. One daughter of a refugee family is on track for dental school.   

“This is a generation of leaders,” Park said. “We can help them reach their potential.”

Park visits many LDS groups to advocate for refugee ministries carried out by Catholic Charities. She acts as a religious lingo translator between Mormons and Catholics.

She makes it clear that Mormon refugee ministry is service, not an opportunity to proselytize.

She is the mother of two sons, an 18-year-old with special needs and a 23-year-old Marine Corps veteran who is now an Albany police officer.

edl@catholicsentinel.org