ELCA Youth Gathering:  Reflections from a volunteer

Before my arrival in Houston, my plans for attending the Youth Gathering were minimal.  I came to Houston to take some long overdue vacation time and I only really planned to go to the convention center on the day before the hall opened to help my wife Marie Anne Sliwinski (ELCA Program Director, Disaster Response and Sustainable Development) with her Lutheran Disaster Response/AMMPARO booth and build a replica of a Rohingya refugee camp due to the my experience handling many proms and setups as a school facility director.  During the build that day, I worked mainly with Chandran Paul Martin (ELCA Regional Representative for Southeast Asia) and Joseph “Joe” Chu (Program Associate for Lutheran Disaster Response-US) and really started to learn more about the Rohingya  camp and the perils that go with it. I could not believe that the situation was that dire with over 700,000 refugees crammed into about 5 square miles of space with minimal water and resources to survive.  It is unfathomable to think that the UN is referring to it as ethnic cleansing and investigating that it could also be considered genocide; terms used during World War II.

As everyone gathered at the end of the night, it was determined that there may not be enough volunteers to help with the booth the next day.  Always being one that wants to help out and knowing “the show must go on,”  I threw my hat into the ring and became one of the 2-3 revolving presenters in the refugee camp section of the LDR exhibit each day of the event.  Chandran’s wealth of experience from visiting the camp allowed him to give me a sample of how the tour should look.  My first few tours through our model camp were a little rocky as I had very minimal background in this topic, but my past experiences as an educator as well as nightly research in my hotel room allowed me to improve and give each passing group a more informed and unique perspective than the previous ones.  I ended up giving almost 50 tours through the camp and the Rohingya refugee crisis has become a topic that I follow on a weekly basis.

For a gathering of youth, I was very surprised that just about every group I walked through was very attentive and engaged in a time where a lot of children their age will tune out and be glued to their phone.  This speaks volumes about the foundation of Lutheran values instilled in these young people.  While not a Lutheran by faith,  I now have an enhanced perspective of the religion, its mission, and the thousands of youth that will carry the church for years to come.   Most vacations are about rest and relaxation.  This one became over 40 intense hours of learning and teaching, but one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in a long time.  I look forward to possibly helping out in Minnesota in 3 years!

Dan Sliwinski, ELCA Youth Gathering Volunteer with People on the Move: A Refugee and Migrant Experience.

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