Friday, July 22, 2011

The ELCA's Best Kept Secret
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

The ELCA’s Best Kept Secret:
Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM)

If you are a college/ university student nearing graduation, consider taking a year off before entering the job market or grad school with this year-long global service program.

If you are a church member having met someone embarking on the YAGM program, offer them $ 25 for the support they have to raise, and, in return, get on their communication list to live vicariously their life-changing experiences.

If you are a church leader, find out who are the YAGM alums in your community and synod, and invite them to share how their year of service has enhanced their life in the church.

The ELCA website YAGM page (Click here) has this inviting photo

We have been blessed this past year here in Jerusalem with six amazing, dedicated, and talented young adults (we call them YAGMs) who have impacted our lives and the lives of the Palestinian church, while taking a giant step that means they will never see the world in the same way as before.

The YAGM program remains the ELCA’s best kept secret—even after ten years.

I still remember the day twelve years or so ago when my academic advisee, Brandon, walked into my Wartburg College office announcing that he had decided to take a year off from college for this new ELCA program in England called “Time for God”—that was what the program was called that first year. I tried to talk Brandon out of it. “I’ll never see you again,” I told him. “You’ll just drop out of school.” Instead, Brandon returned a year later a different person, a new and improved Brandon, a Brandon who had new eyes for his academic work, a Brandon with a strong sense of calling for work in the church.

Okay. So I was wrong.

Over the next years, I found myself encouraging students to apply for this new YAGM program and many were accepted:

•   Sara, Sarah, & Jeremy in England.
•   JoHanna in Thailand.
•   Ellen & Lou in Malaysia.
•   Jake & Angela in Argentina.
•   Britney in Mexico.
•   Nicole in South Africa.
•   Jess in Slovakia.

Hearing about their experiences, I learned a lot about the world and the global church. I also came to realize what a gem the ELCA has in this life-shaping program.

Consider the impact that 419 YAGMs have had on the church returning from a year of service over these last ten years—40 to 50 every year.

Still it seems to be the best kept secret!

While serving on the ELCA Global Mission Board (later renamed Program Committee) a few years ago, I remember our conversation in view of an impending global financial crisis and threatening budget cuts, “Whatever you do, don’t cut the YAGM program. This is the guarantee for a church with a future in Global Mission!” We all agreed.

Later, one February when in Buenos Aires to visit our college’s study abroad sites at several universities, I added an extra day to my trip and phoned Kate Lawler, ELCA missionary and in-country YAGM coordinator for Argentina. We spent a whole day traveling around to YAGM sites, observing the work of YAGMs in the ARC community of Buenos Aires and in a bario where after school programs were making a difference in the lives of the disadvantaged.

So, when considering a call to Jerusalem, one of the things that sold us was the YAGM program here.

Now after a year, we have said our farewells to our six YAGMs, who living and working side-by-side with Palestinian Christians, have changed the perceptions about Americans while having their own eyes opened about people mostly neglected, and often inaccurately maligned in the public media.

It’s been an amazing year of memories with our YAGMs as they:

•   Slept on our living room floor in order to make it on time to our 5:30 a.m. Easter Sunrise Service.
•   Worked in our kitchen to help prepare Christmas Brunch for seventy.
•   Piled into our car to ride from an Advent Service in Bethlehem to the Bedouin Tent Restaurant for a  messa of Arab salads and a glass of Cremisan wine.
•   Joined in thought-provoking questions in living room Bible Study.
•   Shared their joys and sorrows.
•   Served as readers and communion assistants in church on Sundays when they were not worshipping in their local congregations.
•   Relaxed on the volleyball court at our Wednesday evening Mount of Olives gatherings.
•   And pondered with Gloria, as their interim coordinator, about what the future might bring.

Most of them served as teaching assistants in the ELCJHL Lutheran Schools or the Helen Keller School for the Visually Impaired. Individual activities ranged from singing in a Palestinian Choir in Ramallah, Playing Trumpet in the Beit Sahour Scouts “Drum and ‘Bugle’ Corps,” Coaching a swim team, assisting at a Palestinian Women’s Craft Center, and working with disabled children. This is what accompaniment is all about.
Perhaps the secret is starting to get out. The July issue of The Lutheran magazine had a feature article on the ELCA YAGM program in general while focusing on our own Jerusalem YAGM Luke Paquin, who volunteered at the Dar Akalima School in Bethlehem. Link to that article here. Read it. Then share it with a young adult that you know.

The Gospel this week includes the parable of the woman adding a tiny bit of yeast to the dough to feed a world hungry for bread. Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

This fall the ELCA will send out fifty new YAGMs. What if the ELCA were able to send out 100 YAGMs each year? Or 200? Three for each Synod? Or more? Could the church handle it? Would it be prepared to be swamped with returning YAGMs fired up for global mission?

By now, our six YAGMs—Janelle, Sarah, Abby, Trena, David, and Luke—have arrived in the States, readjusting with culture shock, but energized, and realizing they will never be the same. Two are heading to seminary this fall, one to grad school in social work, one to Lutheran Volunteer Corps, one to a community art program, and one to serve as a recruiter for ELCA Global Mission before later enrolling in Dental School.

In Jerusalem, there is an empty spot without them.

By the end of August, however, we will be welcoming Michelle, Sara, Megan, Alma, Courtney, and Laurin-Whitney as they begin a year as Young Adults in Global Mission.

So we invite your prayers for the entire YAGM program throughout the world and especially here in Jerusalem.
Pray for our YAGM country coordinators of these past three years, Martin and Suzanne Shoffner, as they readjust to life in North Carolina.

Pray for our new YAGM country coordinators, Julie Rossate and Jeff VonWald, as they embark on this new ministry.

Pray for our depart-ing YAGMs in their reentry and witness of what they have seen and heard.

Pray for the new YAGMs as they:
• Say their farewells for the year to families and friends;
• Study and read in preparation for a new culture;
• Pack their suitcases, with enough to get by, but leaving unnecessary baggage behind;
• Await approval of visas, inshallah;
• Take part in stateside orientation in Chicago in August;
• Travel safely;
• And as they learn to expect the unexpected in this walk of faith.

The ELW (bottom of page 304) has a beautiful prayer for such persons committed to ventures of accompaniment:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures
          of which we cannot see the ending,
          by paths as yet untrodden,
          through perils unknown.

Give us faith to go out with good courage,
          not knowing where we go,

          but only that your hand is leading us
          and your love supporting us;

Through Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Friday, July 8, 2011

Please repeat the question!
 by Fred & Gloria Strickert

“What is this Bethlehem Lutheran Church?”

This has to be one of the strangest questions I have ever been asked.

“What is this Bethlehem Lutheran Church?”

I have to admit the circumstances were a bit unusual. It was 5:00 in the morning and I had just been awakened by Israeli Security calling from Ben Gurion Airport.

“Redeemer Lutheran Church.” I responded assuming he had a question about our church in the Old City. But as I carefully listened to him repeat the question a third time, I realized this was to be one of the most unusual telephone conversations I have ever had.

“What is this Bethlehem Lutheran Church?  In Iowa. Cedar Falls, Iowa. You must explain the meaning of this name. Bethlehem. Are they Palestinian?  Are they an anti-Israel organization?”


It soon became clear. He was interviewing a young woman whose family attends Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa. A month earlier she had written telling me of her plan to visit Israel and that her pastor at Bethlehem, Cedar Falls had encouraged her to contact me.

As a single, 20-something female traveling alone, she had been pulled out of the line at passport control and taken to a screening room where she was interrogated for four hours before being allowed to pick up her luggage and pass through.

That seems to be quite common these days. Several weeks ago Gloria and I were leaving for vacation and sailed through airport security no problem. In fact, we were given a pass to the Dan Airport Lounge for free drinks and snacks prior to boarding. Later that evening on another flight, our colleague, also working for the church, also holding the same visa, a clergy visa—but young, single, white, female, and traveling alone—was taken aside and asked to stand at the ticket counter for the next three hours to wait to check in until they were already boarding the plane. Then when they finally checked her in, security escorted her to the plane not allowing any stops along the way. So, yes profiling is common here.

And so for the young woman this morning, I had written welcoming her on her visit, giving her my phone number in case she had any problems, and also offering her to come crash on our couch since she would be arriving so early in the morning. And of course I began that letter, “We are especially happy to have a visitor from Bethlehem Lutheran Church. We know your pastor well and we have many friends there.”

When security had her empty out her backpack onto the table, there was my letter of welcome.

So the early morning question over the phone, “What is this Bethlehem Lutheran Church?”

Somewhat bewildered I realized the significance of the question, “In the States we often relate the names of churches to the life of Jesus.”

After a bit of silence on the other end of the line, I continued, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”

“Oh!” he responded, seeming unsure whether to believe me.

“I know the people at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I can vouch for her.” I could have added that I also know the people at Christmas Lutheran Church, in Bethlehem, Palestine, and we travel there several times a week. It is totally legal and safe. There's a lot I could have said, but it’s never wise to offer too much information. “Yes, I know the people at Bethlehem,” was sufficient.

He wasn’t easily convinced and continued to grill me for another ten minutes before hanging up.

Four hours later at 9:00 a.m., security called back a second time, this time another interrogator. “You know this woman? How do you know her?”

“Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I know her pastor. I have friends there.”

They took my passport number to let me know they’d be on my case if there were any problems. “Have a nice day,” they said hanging up.

At 10:30 a.m. there was a knock on the door. “I’m here to crash on your couch. Is your offer still good? I boarded my plane early last evening. I’m exhausted.”

“They let you through?”

A nod of the head.

“Is everything all night?”

“It depends. I had to sign a document, and, if I break it, I’ll be banned from Israel for five years and I’ll have to pay a fine of 50,000 shekels.”

“For what?”

She pulled out her signed statement for me to read.

“I had to promise that I wouldn’t visit the West Bank, that I wouldn’t go to Bethlehem.”

by Fred & Gloria Strickert