By Amy Gray
Director of LCMS Youth Ministry Rev. Mark Kiessling presented a $30,000 check to Linda Hartke, CEO and president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), at an Oct. 26 “Walk of Courage Gala” in Washington, D.C.
That amount was donated by 2016 LCMS Youth Gathering participants to further LIRS efforts, including programs through which LCMS members can care for people in detention centers.
“For more than seven decades, [LIRS] has been a champion for migrants and refugees from around the globe,” welcoming more than 379,000 refugees to the United States through the initiative of Lutheran congregations, according to the LIRS website.
LIRS sponsored the 5K run/walk at this summer’s Youth Gathering in New Orleans and received $10 from each race registration. Roughly 3,000 youth and adults participated.
“LCMS congregations and their young people are becoming aware of the challenges faced by refugees and immigrants due to a number of world crises in recent months and years,” said Kiessling. “God has provided us a wonderful opportunity to welcome new friends from across the globe into our neighborhoods, schools and churches. LIRS is an important resource in providing support, encouragement and expertise. Gathering planners were thankful to be able to highlight their work in this important way.”
LIRS also led Gathering participants through a Syrian-refugee simulation activity on the experiential floor of New Orleans’ Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. During the simulation, youth were led through different rooms signifying the various parts of a refugee’s journey.
“The Syrian-refugee simulation at the Gathering brought to life the dangerous and desperate situations from which millions of Syrian refugees are attempting to escape,” said Amanda Sheldon, LIRS manager for Congregational Outreach.
“Most of the youth were deeply, deeply moved by the tragedy, trauma and difficult circumstances refugees overcome, all before even getting to the U.S.,” Sheldon said. “They were stunned into near silence each time we told a group that the average amount of time a refugee spends in a camp is 17 years. … This was extremely sobering to most of the kids who were not even 17 years old, as they considered the isolation, lack of hope and dire circumstances refugees face in these camps.”
Katie Gowen, one of the young-adult volunteers who helped lead youth through the simulation, said she knew little about the life of a refugee before the Gathering and was deeply impacted by the experience.
“It struck me to see [youth participants] enter this experience without an opinion on the subject — much like me — and leave feeling moved to help refugees. I didn’t come to this experience saying, ‘This is going to change my life,’ but in the end, it did. I may not have had a strong opinion in the beginning, but I definitely do now,” said Gowen.
At the end of the simulation, Sheldon said, “We asked them, ‘As followers of Christ, what kind of welcomer do you want to be?’ Many were in tears, thinking about everything they have here [in the U.S.], and in the moment really realizing that as followers of Christ, there is something they can do about the tragedy unfolding around the world.”
LCMS congregations play a “vital role” in welcoming newcomers who seek safety and hope in American communities, said Sheldon. She added that raising awareness about the realities and needs of immigrants by hosting a congregational or school event is one way to join the effort.
“I plan on doing what I can with LIRS for as long as I can and to be a person who welcomes refugees. After all they’ve been through, they need someone there to welcome them with open arms. Especially as Christians, we need to show the love of Christ,” said Gowen.
To learn more about the mission and ministry of LIRS and how to welcome newcomers, visit lirs.org.
Read more about Katie Gowen’s experience at the LIRS Syrian-refugee simulation during the 2016 Gathering.
Amy Gray (firstname.lastname@example.org) is media and publications project coordinator for LCMS Youth Ministry.
Posted November 9, 2016