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Presbyterian teens take a stand on Capitol Hill for immigration justice and peace

 

Faith Evanson and Lodia Yanga in action

By Debbie Braaksma | Mission Crossroads Magazine

Debbie Braaksma, World Mission’s Africa area coordinator, is flanked by Faith Evanson (left) and Lodia Yanga, youth from Beechmont Presbyterian Church in Louisville, who attended the March for Our Lives event and Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of World Mission

LOUISVILLE – It all started on Palm Sunday at Beechmont Presbyterian Church. I had just learned that two youth group members, Faith Evanson, 15, and Lodia Yanga, 16, had returned from the March for Our Lives event in Washington, D.C.

Beechmont, a multicultural congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, thrives on spontaneity, so I asked Faith if she would share about her experience. She did so with passion, saying she wanted to return. The wheels inside my head began turning. I was heading to Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C., so I thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these girls could participate?” I could chaperone and share my room if we could garner support. Beechmont was eager to do so, as the theme, “A World Uprooted: Responding to Migrants, Refugees and Displaced People,” resonated with our congregation. The church frequently addresses issues of immigrant justice and peace through sermons, prayers, advocacy and World Mission updates. The theme also intrigued Faith and Lodia, as their parents are former Sudanese refugees.

On April 20 the three of us were off to D.C. Faith and Lodia were excited that among the first to speak was the Rev. James Makuei Chuol of the Presbyterian Relief and Development Agency, who discussed the situation in South Sudan.

In addition to attending workshops on human trafficking, South Sudan and racism, we took part in a prayer vigil and a march for immigrants’ rights. Faith said, “I guess the best part of the weekend for me was when we made the posters in the hotel room; then we walked through the streets. I just felt kind of powerful because everyone could see us. We were on Capitol Hill!”

Lodia said, “They had created a [papier-mâché] wall with handprints of hate or bigotry, like sexism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and, at the top of it, it said: ‘Wall of Hate and White Supremacy.’ We carried it from the church to Capitol Hill, where we broke it down. We were singing, and all were united together, and it just felt good!”

When we visited our senators’ and congressional representatives’ offices, Lodia and Faith made the case for immigration reform and support for peacemaking in South Sudan. Faith spoke from personal experience, asking them to “think kindly of refugees.”

“They want to reduce the amount of people they are accepting, but I wanted them to think about the fact that these people do not choose to be refugees,” she said. “My parents didn’t choose to come to America. Sudan was where they know everybody; that’s everybody they grew up with. That’s their life. They would have stayed there, but they couldn’t, so therefore they’re seeking assistance. … Remember that Jesus was a refugee too.”

Faith and Lodia speaking at the office of U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Debbie Braaksma

One might wonder what motivates these young women to care so deeply about immigrant justice and peace in South Sudan. Faith explained, “The reason I care is because I have family all over the world. So I feel like I have to care about people.” Lodia added, “I feel driven to help other people. I feel that people get too wrapped up in their own lives or in their own communities, especially in America. Like this ‘America First’ ideology — I don’t like it; I think it’s very toxic.”

Lodia cited another motivating factor. “My parents always taught me to help people out, to stay up to date with what was going on in the world and to watch news with them,” she said. “When we’d be in the car, they’d turn on NPR. … They have rubbed off on me; I am constantly checking CNN and BBC.” 

They also pointed to their Christian faith as a key part of their motivation. “I think it’s important for Christians to do advocacy,” Faith said, “because in the Bible, in our beliefs and values, we are supposed to treat our neighbors how we want to be treated. You can’t just listen and say, ‘I’m a Christian’ but not do the Christian work.” Lodia agreed. “Advocacy is made for Christians,” she said.

Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Immigrant Rights, Washington, D.C. Debbie Braaksma

That faith has been shaped by Beechmont Presbyterian Church. Faith explained: “Our church is very diverse. We can see issues from many different communities, plus we are very welcoming. You come in and you already feel the love. You see people at church who work for the PC(USA), and they’re talking about things they do in the world, and it makes you want to do more too because these are people you surround yourself with and you kind of look up to them.” Lodia chimed in, “Everybody here is good people. You just feel comfortable being around everybody, and if you are around good energy, you just want to continue to be around good energy.”

One of those “good people” is the Rev. Alonzo Johnson, Beechmont’s youth pastor and the PC(USA)’s coordinator for Self-Development of People. “He influences us to do good things in life and he advises us the right way,” Lodia said. “That’s why everybody comes to church and looks up to him.” Faith added, “When he’s telling you about Christianity, you don’t feel like he’s pushing you. You just feel like he’s guiding you in the right direction. … You feel like you are talking to a friend.”

Having families and a church community that care about global mission and advocacy and a youth pastor who inspires them to live lives of faith and justice has shaped these young women’s commitment to faith-based advocacy. I am thankful to be a part of a congregation that has invested in their lives and a denomination that prioritizes immigrant justice and working for peace in countries like South Sudan.  

The Rev. Debbie Braaksma is Presbyterian World Mission’s Africa area coordinator and parish associate at Beechmont Presbyterian Church.

This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission.


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