Janelle Neubauer is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, currently serving as the country coordinator of the Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) Program in Rwanda and assistant pastor of the Kigali Parish in the Lutheran Church of Rwanda. Her call to ordained ministry and participation in global mission came out of her own experience as a YAGM volunteer in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Below, she shares her experience walking alongside the YAGM volunteers.
The Young Adults in Global Mission program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) sets out to participate in God’s mission in the world by sending young adults to be in partnership with our companion churches. And for YAGM volunteers, their year of missionary service ends where it begins: back home, in a familiar place, but now with a drastically new understanding of life, faith, and how the two intersect in the world.
The experience of going, serving, and returning is as complex and confusing as it is joy-filled and exhilarating. But thankfully, this phenomenon is nothing new. According to the authors of Mark as Story, the Gospel of Mark mimics that same pattern; it is not linear, but cyclical. The end (historically placed at 16:8) points immediately back to the beginning. The disciples are told to head back to the Galilee—back to the place of Jesus’ ministry—where he is waiting for them.
Performed by skilled story-tellers and heard time and time again by early audiences, Mark’s story of good news originally operated like a favorite movie you might watch multiple times, gaining new insight with each go. The first time an audience would have heard about Jesus’ life, ministry, and death, it was sure to be interesting: man performs acts of power and healing in order to subvert the injustices of the empire and reestablish the faithful witness of the Jewish people all the while sticking with a band of hooligan disciples despite their incompetence. Great.
However, after the first time hearing the story of Jesus, the audience was let in on the secret: Jesus’ acts of power and miraculous healings throughout the Galilee are not simply a matter of an extraordinary man of God, but that of God come down to be and dwell among us. And as communities listened again with new ears to the healing ministry that took place in the Galilee, new meaning was layered upon the stories of power and healing. And the invitation became more than an act, but a reality: Christ is arisen and waiting for them to join him with a transformed understanding of how healing takes place.
This is what it means to be a Young Adult in Global Mission (YAGM) volunteer: to witness God’s activities in the world like the disciples witnessed Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and join the masses of the faithful who follow Jesus on the way.
Why? One short answer: So that among a new people these young adults might understand Jesus’ ministry and God’s work in the world with entirely new eyes and ears and that upon their return to the United States they will know how to flex their muscles to join Jesus in acts of power and healing for the sake of their communities, the church, and, yes, the world.
But why young adults? A good question, no doubt, since we are all called to the task of transformation. However, young adults hold a very unique place in the world. Who better to send into service than those who remain students even as they begin to teach, who continue to ask the questions even as they start to provide answers, who are up-and-coming leaders of a church desperately seeking a new way to engage its people and communities?
For the last twenty years, young adults have answered this call to be faithful witnesses, and for the last two years, I have the honor to journey with the volunteers serving in Rwanda as they learn and experience the gospel anew. To dwell with them amidst the transformative power of God’s activity outside of the worlds from which they’ve come: this is my particular joy as I work alongside young adults in this context. Being a program of the whitest denomination within mainline Protestantism, transformation is longing for a home inside our hearts and minds. And just as Jesus waits for his disciples to meet him in the Galilee at the end of the gospel of Mark—so too does Jesus wait for us to join him in the places of transformation throughout the world in our home contexts and abroad.
These places to which these young adults are called have the potential to disrupt and disturb, but not in the ways you might first believe. Most of the young adults in the YAGM program come from places of privilege in the United States in terms of their educational opportunities, socioeconomic status, family support, and living situations. Their year is surely one of sacrifice and commitment—especially for those who do not check every box of privilege dominant society assigns—but the sacrifice and commitment the volunteers witness daily in the communities to which they have been welcomed often far outweighs the losses the volunteers sustain in one year of service. Their year as missionaries quickly begins to disrupt and disturb their understandings of justice (be it political, economic, social, or even spiritual), their understanding of relationship and the experiences that bind us together in an age of appropriation and globalization, and their understanding of power as they see the power of subversion of or obedience to a cause that they’ve never encountered before.
Truly, they take their place among the hooligan disciples from Mark’s gospel, following God’s presence around from place to place and relationship to relationship. And like the disciples, they often wind up standing amazed and confused, indignant and righteous, and/or utterly lost time and time and time again. But it is their following the call to follow Jesus on the way that brings them to unfamiliar places and experiences whereby they see God provide water from the rock and manna in the desert. It is their following that brings them to see the cross in a new context, and the features of Christ’s face in the faces of their brothers, sisters, siblings all around the world. It is their following that finds them searching the tomb for their God who they have seen betrayed, beaten, and killed, only to find that resurrection is in fact real.
And it is their following that brings them back to the beginning of the story of Jesus’ ministry as they return to their communities in the United States, eyes open to their neighbors in new ways, heart planted in the soil of the earth, ready to bloom alongside the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. They are ready to proclaim God’s grace, while working humbly to serve God’s justice. Will they have it all right? Of course not. But just like Paul, they will be able to share the faults of their past and the ingrained misunderstandings of our church and nation in order to speak about the broader grace of Christ that claims each of us under the cloak of God’s love, mercy, and justice.
This is but one facet of a program that promotes breadth as much as depth of experience. You’ll note that this short exploration of the program reveals much about how faithfully engaging with the world affects these young adults and indirectly, their communities back in the United States. This is leaving behind the power of their witness within the global church itself. Unlike the age-old models of missionary service that were generally unilateral, these young adults are shaped and formed through mutual relationship. It is not by any activity of their own that they are transformed. Rather, it is by the witness of their communities and the gifts of faith that are granted to them as they stumble along throughout the course of the year. Much like the people who Jesus heals, speaks to, and dines with throughout the Gospel of Mark, it is the people these young adults encounter on the way that show them the depth of God’s grace.
And where do I come into all of this? As yet another young adult, pastor, practical Bible study leader, and hooligan disciple, giving thanks for the movement of the Holy Spirit among us who helps to make sense of these complexities and compels us to continue meeting Jesus along the way. May we follow the call, seeking God pathway to healing, wholeness, and new life.
The ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) application is open!
The Young Adults in Global Mission is a one-year, international service-learning and faith-formation opportunity in churches and social service ministries for young adults, ages 21-29. The application for the 2019-2020 program year closes February 15th, 2019. For more information and to apply, click here.
Young adults serve alongside Lutheran companion church bodies and organizations in one of ten country programs around the world, being shaped by the witness of our global neighbors in a cross-cultural journey of faith. For the current program year, the country programs are: Argentina & Uruguay, Australia, Central Europe, Cambodia, Jerusalem/West Bank, Madagascar, Mexico, Rwanda, Senegal, and Southern Africa. Areas of service include, but are not limited to, health and development, congregational ministry, human rights, education, homelessness, addiction recovery, women’s issues and children and youth. All site placements provide opportunities for young adults to confront issues of wealth and poverty; racial privilege; economic disparity and globalization, all through the lens of faith.
Short-term recruiters will be headed around to ELCA Colleges and Universities, Lutheran Campus Ministries, ELCA Camps, and other young adults ministries throughout the fall speaking about their previous year of service and about the program as a whole! Be on the lookout for their upcoming visits!