From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Ubuntu, Theme of the ELCA Youth Gathering, Changes Lives

From News News <NEWS@ELCA.ORG>
Date Mon, 16 Jun 2003 16:34:26 -0500


June 16, 2003


     CHICAGO (ELCA) -- Ubuntu, a sub-Saharan African word meaning
humanity, was introduced to more than 40,000 youth ages 14-17 at the
Youth Gathering of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
three years ago in St. Louis.  Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a
keynote speaker at the event, spoke then about humanity and people's
relationships with both God and neighbor.
     The 2003 ELCA Youth Gathering will take place in Atlanta July 16-
20 and July 23-27.  The theme is "Do Life! Ubuntu."
     With the infusion of the idea ubuntu into the Youth Gathering,
Heidi Hagstrom, director for the ELCA Youth Gathering program, ELCA
Division for Congregational Ministries, decided it would be best if some
ELCA members could experience firsthand what the word meant.  Exploring
ubuntu led Hagstrom on a path to find both participants and funding for
a trip that would change the lives of 40 ELCA members.
      This April, Hagstrom led a group of adults and youth who visited
South Africa to experience the meaning of ubuntu for themselves.  Both
youth and adult participants will share their experiences during the
2003Youth Gathering in July in order to help their peers understand the
meaning of ubuntu.
     During the 10-day trip 22 youth, 16 adults participants and two
trip leaders from Augsburg College Center for Global Education learned
about the history of South Africa, the impact of HIV/AIDS in Africa, the
impact of poverty on the lives of South African citizens and the
importance of global community.
     "I want the young people to see how the choices they make impact
people all over the world," Hagstrom said.
     At the beginning of the trip, Hagstrom said, it was established
that both youth and adults were learning partners and that the adults
were not "in charge" of the youth.
     "Adults were companions, not leaders," Hagstrom said.  "That was
really hard on [the adults] because it went against their instincts."
     Almost immediately, the trip began to change the lives of the
participants, according to Hagstrom.  Seeing the way that some of the
people of South Africa had lived under the oppression of apartheid and
understanding that community could exist even within extremely
impoverished areas were just a few of the issues that instantly struck
participants, she said.
     As a group, Hagstrom said, she felt that it was necessary to talk
about what they'd seen in order to better understand it.  "I had to say
we really need to process this," she said.  "The first processing we had
was so painful for them."
     Especially difficult in processing the information was the new
distrust many participants felt for the media.	For example, Hagstrom
said that media groups are often influenced by their own ethnic and
economic makeup.  Before the trip the youth had accepted as truth all of
the information given to them through television, radio and print media,
she said.
     For Hagstrom, discussing what the group  had seen and learned was
difficult because she knew that participants would look at their
surroundings differently after the trip was over, she said.
     "I was just weeping because I thought, 'What have we done to these
kids?'" she said.
     The Rev. Marty D. Tollefson, Calvary Lutheran Church, Grand Forks,
N.D., was a pastor among the participants of the trip.	Tollefson, who
had visited the African continent before, said he felt this experience
was strikingly different from his previous trip.
      "You go to South Africa and you say 'This world doesn't make
sense.'  Then you come home and say 'This world doesn't make sense.'"
     In South Africa, Tollefson said, he saw the importance of home and
community even in run-down houses and oppressive circumstances.
     "[The people] were proud of their homes," he said.  "The houses
were very close together, very minimal."
     Though the majority of the houses the group saw were hardly more
than shacks, there were homes located near these shacks worth millions
of dollars, Tollefson said.  Finding a way to rationalize how some
people have so much and some have so little was difficult, he said.
     Lisa Bishop, a school teacher from Jersey City, N.J., was another
participant on the trip.
     "It was quite a humbling experience.  It truly did become a
journey," Bishop said.	"This is the one place I never thought I'd be."
     For Bishop, the most important part of her experience is not what
she saw while she was in South Africa, but what she brought home with
     "The thing I treasure the most is who I am now.  I have gratitude
for who I am and where I am.  I brought back a sense of peace and
obligation," she said.	Bishop said she found through the concept of
ubuntu a way to deal with tragedy that created a sense of peace and
well-being even through difficult experiences.	Likewise, she said she
felt an obligation to live her life with a conscious dedication "to live
     "I no longer have to fix [problems], but to get through [them],"
Bishop said.
     Karyn Hargrave, an adult participant from Alaska, said she found
herself looking at problems in her life and her community from a
different perspective as well.
     "Problems seem huge and overwhelming," Hargrave said.  "You start
looking at individuals and individual projects."
     According to Hargrave, she realized how important it was to work
on an individual basis.  She said that South Africa is currently working
to overcome the residual hardships and pain left from apartheid.
     "The healing from the oppression is what, for me, showed that if
[South Africans] can get past the injustice, the whole world can,"
Hargrave said.
     Of the problems South Africa faces, participants stressed that
poverty was one of the most prevalent problems.
     "Cape Town was what I expected.  I knew it was one of the most
beautiful cities in the world," Hargrave said.	"It also was very hard
to comprehend the amount of poverty there in the townships."
     However, the importance of community Hargrave saw was surprising,
she said.
     "Their lives are intertwined and they support each other," she
said.  "There were some very positive experiences there."
     In Alaskan villages, Hargrave said, lives are intertwined to
ensure survival, both economically and emotionally.  She said that the
townships were much like Alaskan villages but on a much larger scale.
     "It's the biggest small town that I've ever seen," Hargrave said.
     The concept of ubuntu also made a great impact on the youth who
participated on the trip.  Bethany Jensen, a high school senior from
Grand Forks, N.D., said she believes ubuntu is a way of seeing that is
born inside people.
     "It's a way of life and it's compassion.  It's empathy.  It's
looking at a fellow human and seeing what's right," Jensen said.
"Ubuntu is a way of life, a way to see your life and see yourself."
     For Jensen, one of the most moving experiences was the morning she
spent in an impoverished township outside of Cape Town.
     "When I think about Africa, I think about one morning when the
children came out and wanted to play," she said.  "We were there, and
they were there."
     Jensen recounted that though the children didn't speak English,
there was a connection that she felt with the children.
     Katrina Carlson's experience left her with vivid images of South
Africa, she said.  Carlson is a high school senior from Anchorage,
     "The country there is so beautiful," she said.  "You could see the
oceans and see the mountains."
     According to Carlson, the houses she saw represented a new level
of poverty that she had never been exposed to before.
     "It's hard to call them houses because they are like really small
boxes," she said.  "I don't think very many had windows or doors.  They
looked like boxes that were ready to fall apart."
     Within all of the experiences shared by the 40 participants, the
overarching theme participants spoke about was the importance of
community and the willingness of the South African people to share all
that they had.
     "The family I ate with lived in a middle-class neighborhood in
Cape Town.  The food was incredible.  They cooked so much for us," said
Antonette Sacco, a junior in high school from East Rochester, N.Y.
     Overall, Sacco said her experience strengthened her faith while
making her question parts of her faith.
     "I'm not an arrogant, stupid American anymore," she said.
-- -- --
Information about the ELCA Youth Gathering can be found at on the Web.

* Jessica A. Crane is completing her bachelor of arts degree at
Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn.  This summer she is an intern with
ELCA News and Media production.

For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or NEWS@ELCA.ORG

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