This summer our Mission Project is Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM). A year of service through the YAGM program invites young adults to become the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, providing critical support to ministries and projects in communities of need. It also invites volunteers into a journey of self-reflection, providing space to consider their sense of identity, God’s work in the world, and their place within it. Several VLM staff alumni have served with YAGM—check out a few pictures and stories highlighting their experiences & the way Voyageurs Lutheran Ministry helped them in their discernment process!
Stephanie (Anderson) Berkas
VLM Staff 2006-2009
YAGM Southern Africa, 2009-2010
Some of my most fond memories are from my four summer on staff at Voyageurs Lutheran Ministry. A combination of Northern Minnesota’s immaculate beauty, the gift of phenomenal campers, and the opportunity to build life-long friendships meant that my summers at camp were some of my favorite. Having left camp in 2009 with a deepened faith and sense of self, I embarked on a year of volunteer service through the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program. I was placed just outside of Cape Town, South Africa, living with the local Lutheran pastor and his family. I spent most days teaching music and art at a local elementary school, volunteering at the local Lutheran church, and assisting at a non-profit organization that provided after-school programming in a local township. I leaned heavily on my camp experience as I engaged in these programs; whether crafts, games, or campfire songs, my time abroad was enriched by my years with VLM.
My year in South Africa unsettled for me many of the things that I thought I knew about myself; my identity and place in this world was radically transformed through the relationships that that experience provided. I was loved and welcomed with incomparable hospitality, and was stretched to partake in new, drastically different situations and experiences. I engaged issues of racial privilege, poverty, climate change, and the impact of HIV/AIDS on struggling communities. My life is forever transformed because of the relationships that surround me, from Cook, Minnesota to Cape Town, South Africa!
One of my favorite phrases is “Hamba nathi,” which is isiXhosa for “Come, walk with us.” This echoed throughout my year of service as I was invited to walk alongside my South African sisters and brothers.)
VLM Staff 2006-2009
YAGM South Africa 2009-2010
During my year of service, I lived in Port Elizabeth with a wonderful host family. Aside from spending a lot of time with my host family in the evenings and on the weekends (where we ate delicious home-cooked meals, watched South African television programs, and talked about current and historic events in South Africa), the majority of my time was split between two different placements. The first placement allowed me to engage with the five Lutheran congregations in the city – I volunteered with the outreach programs that were being run out of the congregations (specifically soup kitchens, elder care, child care, home visits, and Church youth groups). My second placement was at a Place of Safety which housed youth who had been abused, abandoned, had lost their parents, or who had gotten in trouble with the law. The majority of my time at the Place of Safety was spent being present in the lives of the children who were there. Formally, that meant that I helped to tutor and lead after-school programs with the children. More often than not however, it actually meant that I played a lot of soccer and rugby with the children and learned how to play (and almost always lose) in dominoes.
Camp played an extremely important role in my discernment of serving with YAGM. Not only were there many counselors who had done YAGM in the years prior to my serving in the program (which helped me to realize that it was an incredible program that I could do), but more importantly, VLM helped to shape my understanding of how I have been ‘Called to Serve’ (which was actually a theme of one of the Bible Studies at camp one summer that I was on staff) in this world.
In South Africa, the common greeting between one another is, “Howzit?” (a shortened version of “How’s it going?”). The common response to this greeting is, “Sharp Sharp” (kind of like saying, “I’m doing well,” but actually, “I’m doing Sharp.”)
So, the next time you see someone, ask them, “Howzit?” and they can respond by saying, “Sharp Sharp.” : )
Just as it was the case at camp, I learned very quickly into my YAGM year that I was learning and growing and being shaped by the community in Port Elizabeth much more than I was teaching or shaping others. Both camp and YAGM have taught me how important it is to walk with those I am in relationship with, and it is through the walking with others where I feel like I am experiencing God the most fully.
VLM Staff 2009-2012
YAGM South Africa 2012-2013
I lived with an incredible host family that included: siblings, cousins, Go-Go’s (grandma’s), neighbors and parents! Living with a Pastor’s family meant the doors to our home were always open, and my days at home were filled with cooking, gardening, dance parties, teaching my siblings Twister & UNO, and treating ourselves to some sugar cane stalks from the fields surrounding our house!
I spent the majority of my time at several volunteer placement sites including: a local crèche (pre-school) where I played with the kiddos and worked with mothers to create educational toys for their children out of recycled materials, a government run Primary School where I helped in a Grade 1 classroom, or at the sugar cane farms, leading worship and spending time with the farm workers.
-Favorite Zulu phrase!
I love you: “Ngiyakuthanda!”
-A Favorite tradition:
Each morning and evening my host family would gather to pray and sing together. I didn’t often understand the Zulu that was being spoken, but was able to quickly learn the Zulu worship songs we sang and found those to be a beautiful way for me to connect with God and my South African community at the beginning and end of each day. Singing together truly shows how interconnected we all are—from the Vermilion campfire ring all the way to South Africa!
VLM Staff 2008-2012
YAGM Jerusalem and the West Bank, Palestine 2012-2013
My summers working at Camp Hiawatha and Camp Vermilion have shaped and enriched my life in ways that have helped me discern my place in God’s world. During my year of service with Young Adults in Global Mission, I lived in Beit Jala, Palestine (just outside of the not-so-little-town of Bethlehem!). I lived with an amazing host family who welcomed me in with open arms and called me their own—the majority of my time was spent playing with my host sisters, sipping tea with fresh mint (delicious!) with the grandparents, or any number of things! My main placement site was at an environmental education center, where I helped give tours, write grants, and learned about the environmental crisis facing the region. I also spent a great deal of time at Shadia’s library, where I helped tutor kids in English (and they tutored me in Arabic!), lead games, crafts, and other activities, and helped to coordinate a day camp in the summer. The skills I gained from my summers at camp were immensely helpful during my time of service, particularly in terms of games—“Fishy, Fishy Cross My Ocean” is a universal favorite among day campers in Northeastern Minnesota and Palestinian students alike!
The most important elements of my time in Palestine were the relationships I made. My years at camp taught me about the value of community, hospitality, and the sacredness of sharing a meal; I continued to embrace these lessons as I made new friends who offered me welcome, laughter, and countless delicious meals! One of my favorite family traditions were Sunday lunches: After lunch, I would hurry home from church, let myself into my host mother’s apartment, where I would immediately find my arms full of sisters and family members hugging me. In a jumble of words, laughter, and people (similar to the dining hall at camp!), we would manage to seat ourselves around the table. The conversation, the delicious food, but more importantly, the people I shared it with, embodied holiness, as we thanked God for our food and for those around us.
One of my favorite Palestinian customs is the process of thanking God for the food after a meal: Adults will say “Nurshkur Allah” (Thanks be to God!), and little ones will hastily push back their chairs saying, “Dye-may!” (Always—as in, may I always have enough food to be full). This is a beautiful practice of gratitude!
VLM Staff 2005-2008, 2010-2011
YAGM United Kingdom 2008-2009
I served at the Salford ‘Just’ Youth Centre (Manchester), a Roman Catholic student ministry of the Spiritan Order of Holy Ghost Fathers. The Youth Centre served Catholic Primary and High Schools located within the diocese of Salford offering both in-school chaplaincy and “Christian Discovery Days” at our Centre in Lower Kersal. I was fortunate to be able to have chaplaincy at St. George’s RC HS in Walkden where I was able to go at least once a week to grow in many Christ-Centered relationships among the students and staff. I was a part of a team that led students in school Masses, liturgy, Sex & Relationship Education, and general support to the Religious Education of each of our schools. I lived in a truly international and ecumenical community made up of folks from the UK, a variety of African nations, New Zealand, The Philippines, South Korea, Georgia, and Germany. Even though I was a Protestant Lutheran, I grew deeply in my faith and my understanding and respect for other cultures during my YAGM year.
VLM was critical in my discernment of my vocation to serve the church. As a student at Concordia College (a Lutheran College) I was exposed to VLM by other summer staff and was welcomed into a summer community that believes deeply in the inclusion of all people, radical hospitality, and most importantly, GOD’S GRACE!
We would gather every week day after work for community Mass (just the 4-5 of us) that was presided over by one of the priests in our home where we would pray for each other, share +Holy Communion, read scripture, and hear the gospel proclaimed. We spent each evening thereafter together at a community meal that we prayed before of course, but more importantly, after! Father Patrick (from Ghana) always said it was there when we were full of food that we needed to thank God and consider those who go with less or without, the most! I treasure those days and believe they were vital in where God is leading me in this world!
VLM Staff 2008-2010
YAGM South Africa 2011-2012
During my year in South Africa, I lived in Bonaero Park, which is a tiny suburb of Johannesburg, right near OR Tambo International Airport. I stayed at the Lutheran Centre – the headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA) – and worked with the ELCSA Development Service, as well as in a crèche (preschool) and at a local after-school program.
With the Development Service, I had the opportunity to travel to some of the other provinces of South Africa, in order to facilitate educational and community development workshops about topics such as Human Trafficking, Xenophobia, Climate Justice, and Income Generation Projects. Living at the Lutheran Centre, I also had a chance to meet many of ELCSA’s pastors and church leaders, as well as numerous individuals working in the field of non-profit organizations.
Volunteering at the crèche and the after-school program (which was held at the local library) gave me the opportunity to meet and connect with members of my host community. While I primarily spent my time with children & youth, these connections to the local community allowed me the opportunity to take part in a number of events, from weddings to funerals to holiday celebrations to community fundraisers. At each event, I remember being reminded anew of how hospitable, warm & community-centered South Africans are.
I first heard about the YAGM program while working at camp. During my first summer on staff, there were a couple of staff members who were going to start their YAGM year abroad at the end of the summer. I remember being curious, but not knowing much about the program. The following summer, those same staff members returned to camp after serving through YAGM, and had nothing but positive things to say about their experience and how life-changing it had been. The summer after that, the same thing happened – returning YAGM/VLM alums visited camp and again sparked my interest in the program. So I decided to apply. It was the community focus, the focus on service to others, and of course the chance to go abroad and really become immersed in another culture and country that most appealed to me about the YAGM program – all elements I had come to appreciate and recognize the importance of while working for VLM.
One of my favorite things about food in South Africa was the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. Fruits such as oranges, mangoes, papayas, litchis, avocados, and passion fruit were affordable and easy to buy at the right times of the year, and they were delicious. Since returning home, I have yet to buy one of these fruits at a grocery store and think that it tastes as good as the ones I ate in South Africa.
Along with fruits and veggies, my favorite South African meal is pap & gravy. Pap is a kind of porridge (think of it as a rice substitute), and when I had it, it was always served with a tomato, onion and pepper gravy sauce. Sometimes meat or sausage would be added to the gravy, and the gravy was usually pretty spicy. Pap is a staple food for most South Africans, usually eaten daily, so I had this meal quite often!