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June 16, 2003 ELCA News Service
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Ubuntu, Theme of the ELCA Youth Gathering, Changes Lives

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2003 Youth Gathering

Chicago (ELCA)-JAC* — 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 her.

"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 ubuntu."

"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, Alaska.

"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.

* 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.