Leadership and equity important topics for future work
(LWI) – Seeking models to address mental illness, bringing youth living on the streets to join in tree-planting initiatives, pooling resources to fund education for fellow youth and raising awareness about gender-based violence. These are some of the activities the Africa region members of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Global Young Reformers Network 2.0 have been carrying out over the last two years.
“Yes, youth are capable and are making things happen if they have the opportunity and resources,” says Lilian Kwaw, Evangelical Lutheran of Ghana (ELCG). Over three days in December, Kwaw was among 35 delegates from the 31 LWF member churches in Africa who met online to assess their work since 2018 and agree on an action plan for the next two years. The national vice-president of ELCG youth is involved in an education project that raises awareness about forced labor and advocates against the violation of children’s rights in her country under the theme “human beings not for sale.”
Like other LWF regions, the young reformers’ activities are guided by three global youth priorities decided at the 2017 Assembly: revival of churches, equity and education; and two cross-cutting themes -- climate justice and youth participation. They also discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their churches and communities.
Addressing gender-based violence
Maya B. Sichali representing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi (ELCM) noted that in spite of several public policies and legal frameworks that address gender-based violence, one out of every five girls in the country had faced sexual abuse before the age of 18. ELCM youth are actively engaged in parish development committees that coordinate activities to promote awareness on this issue.
The church and its diaconal arm, Evangelical Lutheran Development Services, have developed a gender justice policy to engage congregation members and the wider community in addressing unequal power relations between men and women, which often trigger violence against women. “When it comes to gender-based violence, it is important to let [the victims] know that the church is here and listening to their cry for help,” she said.
Sichali said there was an increase of violence against women and children due to the COVID-19 lock down measures. With schools closed down and most school-age children sitting idle at home, violations of girls’ rights especially in the rural areas increased “and many school girls got married off.”
Mental health issues
Melissa Hove and fellow youth from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe (ELCZ) have been focusing on the increasing cases of mental health in a country that was already experiencing a socio-economic crisis before the coronavirus pandemic.
Hove said a meeting she hosted online on World Mental Health Day (10 October) made her realize “there is a gap that needs to be filled when it comes to how the church addresses mental health issues.” While ELCZ church elders and pastors provide counselling, “there is not much knowledge about mental illness, and the patients and their families continue to be stigmatized due to beliefs and myths surrounding the disease,” she added.
A volunteer at the church’s diaconal organization, Lutheran Development Services, Hove is pursuing post-graduate studies in social work and preparing her dissertation on how the church perceives mental illness. The topic was the focus of a recent youth Bible study at her congregation in Hatfield, Harare. “We discussed models that could be used by church counsellors when dealing with people suffering from mental health,” she said.
Participants in the November 2020 ELCM National Youth Assembly, during which Bishop Dr Joseph P. Bvumbwe encouraged young people to support the church’s efforts in addressing rising cases of violence against women and children. Photo: ELCM/Maya B. Sichali
Young reformer Samuel Sahr Gborie and other youth in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone (ELCSL) have been raising awareness about the impact of human activity on the environment. In a context where tree felling for fuelwood and income is widespread in the rural areas, the youth are active in the church’s tree-planting campaigns.
“Charcoal burning involves cutting down trees and most of the time replanting of trees is abandoned. We [youth] have joined hands with the church to let the affected communities know that the activity that gives them income is the same one destroying the environment,” Gborie said.
During training workshops and tree-planting days, ELCSL youth help community members understand that deforestation leads to destruction of water catchment areas, soil erosion, drought and eventually poor crop production. The church targets youth and young adults because of their involvement in the charcoal trade and environmental activities. Citing a workshop in Ngbamba town in the southern district of Bo, Gborie said this group accounted for nearly 65 percent of the 110 community participants. “We encourage more youth to participate because we also believe they are the ones who will take care of the environment in the future,” he added.
In Kenya, young marginalized people living on the streets are invited to sports’ tournaments, tree-planting activities, training workshops and peace-themed public lecturers by the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church (KELC). The events focus on minimizing youth radicalization and the potential for community violence due to socio-economic, political, religious or ethnic differences, and offer opportunities for income-generating initiatives.
We let the affected communities know that the activity that gives them income is the same one destroying the environment.
Young reformer Harrison Juma Angonga said such events provide an opportunity to learn about “religious and social conflicts in our communities and the importance of our commitment to be peace ambassadors.” Older youth who have been in the program for a long time are encouraged to share their experiences and mentor new and young members. The peace campaigns take place three times a year during school holidays, but the 2020 plans were put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
KELC's community-based activities are open to everyone including people from other religions. “They provide a space for dialogue and learning from the different speakers,” Angonga added.
Care for the environment features prominently. At national level, the weeklong annual general youth assembly in December attended by around 500 young people concludes with each participant planting a tree. In parishes and congregations, church leaders and youth plant a tree in the church compound for every child baptized, and some of the youth groups are also engaged in tree-planting projects in their communities.
Regional action plan
In their action plan until 2022, the African young reformers identified leadership and equity as important topics for their future work. They plan to encourage their churches to practice the LWF policy of participation at decision-making and leadership levels that includes 20 percent youth, 40 percent women and 40 percent men.
They will also advise churches to incorporate topics on leadership in confirmation classes, with the youth themselves offering to support the young confirmands so that “they feel included and not just spectators.”
The group also discussed challenges that hinder most youth from active participation in the church. Participants noted that since most young adults are dependent on their parents or spouses for financial and other forms of support, churches should provide capacity-building opportunities to make young people more independent.
“Young Reformers in Africa are taking the initiative to lead the church, the communion and the community into intentional care of others, the environment and self. Everyone benefits when young people put their gifts into practice; bringing awareness and change to difficult issues in the region, said LWF Program Executive for Capacity Building and Leadership Development Rev. Katariina Kiilunnen who facilitated the online meeting.