YAGM CallaA year of listening as a Young Adult in Global Mission in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
I recently heard someone say that the Young Adults in Global Mission program is one of the most exciting things happening in the ELCA today. Though I may be a little biased, having experienced the incredibly life-giving journey myself, I must say I agree.
The Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program is a year of intentional international service and leadership development that began in 1999 with just 10 young people stepping out into the world to serve as the youngest ELCA missionaries. Now, every year young adults ages 21-29 serve abroad, called into the communities of our global companions on six continents. Volunteers serve in 12 different countries, including Serbia, Hungary, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Rwanda, Senegal, Madagascar, Nepal, Jerusalem and the West Bank, Australia and the United Kingdom.
The service placements range from service in healthcare and agriculture, to education, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and economic development. My friends have served on a dairy farm in the desert of Senegal, and work in a film archive in bustling Mexico City! I myself served as an educator during my year, though I believe I learned far more than anything I possibly could have myself taught my students.
Volunteers are called to walk alongside the work of our companion churches that the ELCA partners with throughout the world. These long standing relationships are rooted in deep friendship. All mission work in the ELCA is rooted in the theology of accompaniment. This theology of service invites all of our missionaries into relationships with our global companions in ways that reflect inclusivity, vulnerability, empowerment of communities, sustainability, interdependence and mutuality. As my cohort arrived in Jerusalem, Bishop Ibrahim Azar welcomed us in with an invitation that I believe defines the theology of accompaniment, of what it means to be a missionary—of what it means to be a Christian, best. He looked at the 7 of us gathered in the pews that morning and said,
“You do not come among us to save us or fix our problems. Nor do you come among us as tourists or guests. Instead, we receive you as siblings in Christ. We welcome you to walk hand-in-hand with us. We hope you will rejoice when we rejoice, and weep when we weep. We invite you to experience our lives as Palestinian Christians living under occupation; to hear our stories and likewise share your stories with us.”
Over the course of the year, this was our commission. YAGM volunteers engage with the work that each individual church is devoted to within their own community. My cohort and I had the privilege to serve alongside Lutheran Christians in the Holy Land who are dedicated to educating young people. In the spirit of the accompaniment, each of us served alongside the church in this capacity. I was welcomed into a loving school community where I assisted with English language classes and tutoring sessions for students 4 years old up through fourth grade. It was a gift to learn alongside my students over the course of the year. It was a gift to walk together.
So often when we talk about accompaniment, we talk about walking alongside. The beautiful reality of my year in Palestine was an experience of what this means as a person of faith. As I was so warmly welcomed into my host family and community, I learned from members of God’s beloved community as we together harvested olives, worshiped in Arabic, cooked and enjoyed meals with ingredients from the tress in the garden, laughed from our bellies, and celebrated weddings and births and milestones. I returned to the US with a deep belief that we are so deeply connected to our neighbors in our own community and around the globe and that God is calling us deeper into these relationships.
Way back during the orientation weeks before we embarked on our year-long journey, one of the leaders of the program said “during this year we will mess with you, and in returning we invite you to mess with this church”. Being back in the US, I so enjoy witnessing the incredible ways my fellow volunteers have taken those words to heart. Every year young adults return home with great passion to continue to work for change in our world. 30% of the young missionaries who return from this program go on to lead our church in rostered ministry as pastors and deacons. 60% more go on to serve our country and our world in human services and social justice work. The call to walk alongside is a life-long call, and the YAGM program is shaping young people who are committed to calling this church into the work of accompaniment in our communities here at home and around the world.