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Attitude of an Overcomer

Teen pregnancy is both a personal and a social issue, and teenage mothers often must face personal, psychological effects as well as social stigma.  In the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, managed in part by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), most of the teenage mothers have experienced familial rejection and sexual- and gender-based violence. In the long term, many may also face depression, forced marriage and social rejection.

The LWF child protection department plays a major role in minimizing the factors that lead to teen pregnancy and in working to ensure the well-being of teenage mothers and their children.  The intervention and psychosocial support LWF provides is critical to their safety, health, and wellness. This program at Kakuma is supported in part by ELCA World Hunger.

Nyamok was only three years old when she and her siblings fled violence in South Sudan in 2002. They eventually made their way to Kakuma. Nyamok’s older sister, Nyaduk, cared for her until 2014, when Nyaduk left the camp to return to South Sudan.

In 2013, when she was 14, Nyamok was impregnated by a 25-year-old man from her tribe at the camp.  The man ran away after learning about the pregnancy, despite attempts by the community to arrest him. Nyamok faced both the personal effects of sexual violence and the social stigma of teenage pregnancy.  Shortly after finding out she was pregnant, Nyamok dropped out of Unity Primary School in Kakuma, losing hope of ever being able to finish her education.

Nyamok received counseling support from LWF Child Protection and enrolled in a support group for teenage mothers. This support helped her feel encouraged enough to return to school in 2015, one year after her daughter was born. Returning to school was not an easy choice. According to Nyamok’s cultural traditions, once a girl is pregnant, she is expected to marry. Nyamok did not marry, though, and faced stigma and isolation from other students her age. Still, she remained determined to continue her education.

In 2016, Nyamok sat for examinations for her Kenya certificate of Primary Education and did excellently, scoring in the top two percent of students. She is now trying to enroll in secondary school to pursue her dream of protecting girls and women as a lawyer.

Because of the support she received, Nyamok can now see a bright future for herself and her daughter. “God has a plan for each one of us,” she says. “I can tell that one’s attitude toward education is an important factor to success.” Her message to other child parents is hopeful: “Many people have gone through many hardships, but they have accomplished in life. You, too, can do that.”

Despite the challenges that refugees like Nyamok face, their resilience and hard work and the support of LWF make it possible for them to thrive. Through the LWF child protection department, ELCA World Hunger continues to accompany Nyamok and other teenage mothers as they pursue their dreams at Kakuma.

Photos: Lutheran World Federation

Top Ten Resources on Refugees and Resettlement

Aware of the special challenges refugees, migrants, and displaced persons face, ELCA World Hunger has long supported companions and partners that work with people who have been forced to leave their homes for a variety of reasons.  Partners like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) are critical actors in this work.

Donald Trump’s recent executive order to halt refugee resettlement in the United States for 120 days has elicited concern, fear, anger, and confusion from members of the ELCA, our ecumenical partners and our international companions.  In response, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton released a statement reminding Lutherans and other Christians of our gospel call “to welcome the stranger and treat the sojourner as we would our own citizens.”  At this point in time, we may also be reminded of Martin Luther’s admonition to preachers:

“Those who are in the office [of ministry] and are called to do so shall rebuke their [rulers] boldly and openly…To rebuke rulers is not seditious, provided it is done in the way here described: namely, by the office by which God has committed that duty, and through God’s Word, spoken publicly, boldly, and honestly.”[1]

Below are some key resources that may be useful to those called to “speak publicly, boldly, and honestly” about the recent executive order and its effects.

  1. ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton affirms the ELCA’s commitment “to continuing ministries of welcome that support and build communities around the country and stand firmly against any policies that result in scaling back the refugee resettlement program.”
  2. The Lutheran World Federation, the World Council of Churches and ACT Alliance jointly issued a statement, calling the ban “an abysmal failure of compassion and responsibility.” LWF also has a short video with a powerful reminder: “Refugees lose many things when they flee, but never their human rights.”
  3.  ELCA’s Social Message on Immigration (1998)
  4. ELCA World Hunger offers some food for thought in this blog post on Lutheran faith and refugees.
  5. Hear the story of the Kafley family resettling in Chicago, Illinois, thanks to support from ELCA World Hunger and RefugeeOne.
  6. Learn how  St. Andrew’s Refugee Service in Cairo, Egypt, accompanies refugee youth with warm meals, psychosocial support and education.
  7. Hear the reactions of refugees awaiting resettlement as they get news of the ban in Dadaab, the largest cluster of refugee camps in the world.
  8. Advocate for change. Join ELCA Advocacy in lifting your voice in support of refugees and migrants by participating in this critical advocacy action. Visit Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), a long-time partner of ELCA World Hunger, and learn steps you can take to advocate for refugees and migrants.
  9. The intercessory prayer for February 5, 2017, from Sundays and Seasons is particularly timely and scripturally relevant, for those with a subscription. For those without a subscription, LIRS offers some great resources for remembering refugees in your worship and prayers.
  10. Support the ongoing accompaniment of refugees and many other programs made possible by gifts to ELCA World Hunger. Through ELCA World Hunger, this church supports needed programs in refugee camps, protection and advocacy for migrants and refugees, and resettlement efforts through our network of companions and partners. Consider ELCA Good Gifts, such as feeding a refugee family for one week or for one month.


[1] Luther’s “Commentary on Psalm 82,” Luther’s Works vol. 13, pages 49-51. Quoted in Carter Lindberg, “Luther and the Common Chest,” in Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee, eds., The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2016.)

Lutherans and Refugees


“As we journey together through the time God has given us, may God give us

the grace of a welcoming heart and an overflowing love for the new neighbors

among us.”  – ELCA, A Social Message on Immigration, 1998.

Aware of the special challenges refugees, migrants, and displaced persons face, ELCA World Hunger has long supported companions and partners that work with people who have been forced to leave their homes for a variety of reasons.  Partners like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) are critical actors in this work.

Within days after the terrorist attacks in France, governors throughout the United States proclaimed that they would no longer accept Syrian refugees.  As of November 18, 26 governors had issued such statements.  Legally, of course, governors cannot stop refugees, but they can make it very hard on them, by withholding state funds to help them resettle, by refusing to issue state identification, or by increasing the already rigorous screening process for certain refugees or immigrants.  On November 20, the House of Representatives voted to suspend the program allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the United States.

This presents a good occasion for recalling some of the reasons Lutherans support this important work.  The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) has issued a response to these developments, noting poignantly, “To close the door on resettling Syrian refugees would be nothing less than signing a death warrant for tens of thousands of families fleeing for their very lives.”  But there are other reasons Lutherans continue to accompany immigrants and refugees beyond the dire consequences many of them currently face.  (For some background to a Lutheran view on undocumented immigration, see this earlier post.)

#1 –Remembering who we were

Christian ethics, in general, and Lutheran ethics, in particular, begin with memory.  The Hebrew Scriptures tell a story of our ancient ancestors enslaved in Egypt.  They were strangers in a strange land, but God led them to freedom, and it is this action of God that lays the foundation of their own vocation toward strangers: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). The special concern for widows, strangers, and orphans in the Hebrew Scriptures is rooted in God’s care of the people when they were helpless and landless.

It isn’t an overstatement to say that, for Lutherans, the whole of the moral life is memory.  From a religious perspective, good works aren’t done out of blind obedience or to earn a spot in Heaven; for Lutherans, good works are done out of gratitude for the grace of God that saved us when we could not save ourselves. They are done in memory of God’s ways of acting toward us.  We were wandering spiritually, and God welcomed us, comforted us, and saved us.

Lutherans, too, can look at more recent history of our own displacement.  After World War II, nearly one in six Lutherans in the world was a refugee or a displaced person.  Some found permanent homes in Europe; others languished in camps.  Thanks to advocacy in part on their behalf, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which opened the doors to wandering peoples.  Many displaced Lutherans found homes in the United States because this country opened its doors, even accepting those German Lutherans whose country had been at war with the US.  Once here, the National Lutheran Council and other faith-based agencies were critical in helping the refugees resettle.

Spiritually and historically, we are a wandering people whose lives have often depended on the hospitality of others.

#2 – Seeing who we are

As a white, straight, cisgender male, I cannot once recall being asked to speak for all white people, all cisgender men, or all straight people.  But I can recall numerous times when I have heard other people asked to speak for their entire race, their entire ethnic community, or their entire gender.  This is perhaps one of the most complex and pernicious elements of privilege.  My privilege lets me assume I will always be treated as an individual, rather than as merely a representative of an entire group.

As social media exploded with invective calling for the banning of all Syrian refugees because of the nationality of an alleged Paris terrorist, it was no surprise that my suggestion of increasing surveillance of all men went unheeded.  After all, men represent the vast majority of terrorists both foreign and domestic, men are overwhelmingly responsible for mass shootings in the United States, and men are far and away the perpetrators of violence in the home.  If we are serious about protecting communities from violence, perhaps we should start with policies that circumscribe the freedom of men.

Of course, that won’t happen, because men are still privileged the world over, so their gender is not lifted up as problematic in the same way that ethnicity or nationality might be. Those in the center have the privilege of being treated as individuals, while those on the margins are viewed merely as a group.  We saw a similar dynamic at work in regards to anti-Asian racism during World War II.  While German Americans and Italian Americans had numerous exemptions from internment that kept their population in camps very low, Japanese Americans had virtually no exemption from internment and were imprisoned with little question, despite the fact that all three countries of origin were at war with the United States.  Those of European descent were treated as individuals and separately interrogated, whereas those of Japanese descent were treated as a group, with few individual considerations.

For Lutherans, this type of discrimination is not merely problematic; it’s heretical. It is a denial of the foundational belief that humans are created in the image of God.  This doesn’t mean that we naively assume everyone is a good person.  Created in God’s image doesn’t mean “nice.”  It means that each and every human being is a creature with dignity, worthy of our care.  This transcending identity – image of God – is expressed through a variety of penultimate identities – racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, and many more. But our foundational identity as images of God grounds each in dignity. What makes a person worthy of our care, our hospitality, our protection?  Their very creation in the image of God. This is privilege that is universal.

This doesn’t mean we have to like everyone.  Nor does it mean we cannot punish persons when they do wrong. But it does mean we must respect their dignity, and doing so demands that we see what lies beneath their other identities, particularly when they differ from our own.  It means a willingness to hear their story, to let them speak, to see them as more than just a Syrian or just a Muslim or just a Christian. It demands an openness to seeing God through them. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

#3 – Becoming whom we are called to be

It is natural to feel afraid after events like those of last week.  But, for Lutherans, fear cannot be what marks our behavior toward neighbors.  Lutherans believe that God has set us free from sin and death so that we can serve the neighbor confidently and boldly.  We have life so that we may serve our neighbors.  Presiding Bishop of the ELCA Elizabeth Eaton puts it well:

Even in the face of evil, we remain confident that the good news of Jesus Christ liberates us and gives us the freedom and courage to discover and boldly participate in what God is up to in this world…We are not naïve about possible new threats of terrorism, but denying refuge to thousands of desperate people is not who we are as Christians, nor will it guarantee our security.

Martin Luther was also clear on what courage in service of the neighbor means.  In 1527, Luther responded to the question of “whether one may flee from a deadly plague.” His response was straightforward:

A man who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor.

Life together involves calculated risk.  Lutherans are called to live in love of the neighbor, not in fear of the neighbor.  There is no truly “safe” service. Accompanying our neighbors means walking down dark roads, facing with them situations of violence and oppression and taking risks that things will not go as planned.  We do all this in awareness that a life lived in isolation and fear of one another is not a life worth living.

(Of course, it is necessary to point out here the rigorous screening process each refugee must go through before settling in the United States.  The process is lengthy and involves several agencies.  The recent fear of refugees is more reactionary than reasonable.)

So, faithful people will continue to accompany their displaced neighbors.  LIRS and other agencies will continue their important work, and ELCA World Hunger will continue to support it.  But this will get harder as irrational fear continues to snake through our communities.

You can help.  Be an advocate.  At the water cooler, in the classroom, during coffee hour, from the pulpit and around the table, remember who we are and whom we are called to be.  We Lutherans stand in a long line of people whose existence has depended on God continually loving them despite their failings, on a Messiah opening his arms to those who crucified him, and on a government extending welcome to fearful exiles displaced by tyranny.

We are a migrant people, saved by one whose first human experience was escaping violence with his mother and father (Matt. 2:13-15).


Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D. is program director for Hunger Education with ELCA World Hunger.  He can be reached at


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Climate Change and Migration

An interesting piece that was emailed to me:

March 23, 2009
Migrant or refugee — what’s in a name?

HARINAGAR, Bangladesh — Environmentalists call the two young men who sneaked into India from this coastal village “climate refugees.” Government officials call them “migrants.”
Shumitra calls them her sons.

Squatting on the porch of her mud and thatch home, Shumitra clutches a photograph of 15-year-old Topon and 27-year-old Jogodish and wonders if she will ever see them again. Unselfconsciously, she lets her orange headscarf fall away as she describes how her eldest left two years ago as work in the rice fields dried up. The other boy followed after a devastating flood in July drowned the year’s crops.

She is not aware that her sons and others like them are subjects of a fierce war of words. At issue is not whether climate change will be responsible for displacing millions of people this century. It’s what to call the victims.

The distinction is not just academic. Experts say it can have real-life implications for national budgets, international law and immigration policies of nations from America to India.
“What do you call these people? Are they refugees? That’s a very sticky issue,” said Koko Warner, who heads the Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability, and Adaptation Section at the U.N. University in Bonn, Germany.

‘There’s a lot of defensiveness’
“Other countries don’t want to be responsible for more people. There’s a lot of defensiveness,” she said. “It can be a very contentious, threatening political topic.”

Environmental and aid organizations prefer “refugee,” evoking powerful images of men and women driven from their homes with only the clothes on their back. Activists and government leaders in vulnerable countries also insist it is accurate.

“If a family lost his house or capital, if he doesn’t have any place to get housing or buy food, he should go some other place. He’s a refugee. If it happened because of climate impact, then he’s a climate refugee,” said Sarder Shafiqul Alam, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies in Dhaka.

“It’s not war with a gun. It’s war against climate calamity by local communities, so it’s a fight,” he said.

Opponents of “refugee” come from several corners. Western governments have shied away from the phrase for fear they will be called upon to pay a hefty price for the impact of decades of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The moment you say there are ‘climate refugees,’ a set of obligations come up, and that, I think, is a problem,” said Rabab Fatima, regional representative for South Asia at the International Organization for Migration in Dhaka.

“Some countries would like to push it. But then, the international community is still not in a position to address those politics,” she said.

‘Refugee’ puts the burden on developed nations
Human rights leaders also bristle at the term “refugee.” They argue that the word has a precise legal definition under the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees as someone who must flee because of persecution or a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Cécile Pouilly, a spokeswoman at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, said that convention was hard-fought. She argued that any attempt to play fast and loose with linguistics, no matter how sympathetic the victims of climate change, would do a disservice to the world’s 11 million refugees fleeing brutal dictatorships, violence, repression and civil wars.

“What we fear is that by misusing the term, we will weaken the definition of ‘refugee,'” Pouilly said. “We’re already struggling.”

Pouilly and several researchers said they understand the desire to use vivid language rather than colder, more academic terms like “migrant” and “climate-induced migration” to describe the wrenching specter of 200 million people being forced from their homes by midcentury. Besides, they acknowledged, it’s hard to get politicians to act on intractable issues like reducing emissions until they are confronted with the stark human implications of ignoring the issue.
“Refugee” puts the onus for reducing emissions — and the responsibility for compensating the millions displaced by climate change — squarely on the shoulders of developed nations like the United States and members of the European Union. Ultimately, activists said, it challenges them to act.

“The idea that [other countries] would have a legal obligation to admit 150 million Bangladeshis or migrants from other nations … I don’t think that is fruitful. I think that will scare governments that are capable of responding,” said Kathleen Newland, who directs refugee policy at the Migration Policy Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.

Added Pouilly, “The word is used by environmentalists to push rich countries to do something on climate change, to use this ghost of millions of refugees on rickety boats arriving on the shores of their country. But there are others who say this is backfiring, that it is causing countries to build walls,” Pouilly said.

In India, which is busy constructing a fence along its porous, 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh, that is already happening.

Copyright 2009 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

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David Creech