Whether Elizabeth gets to attend this summer’s ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit doesn’t depend on parents, car washes or bake sales.

The U.S. State Department will make the decision.

The 15-year-old member of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, one of the world’s largest Lutheran church bodies, loves dancing, reading, writing, drama and living in Pematangsiantar, Indonesia. She’s also an expert at being a minority in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

“I understand that my faith is not enough to move a mountain or to walk on the water, but my faith is strong enough to guide me in my life and among the non-Christian society,” she says.

Elizabeth is one of 49 youths from 26 countries hoping to share their gifts July 15-19 in Detroit. All of them are seeking to secure a visitor’s visa – and most will not hear from the State Department until a few weeks before the event.

If their visas are approved, they will join the growing cadre of international youth who have participated in the International Companion Program to the ELCA Youth Gathering since 1988.

The three-week program – an orientation, a home-stay in an ELCA synod, and the Gathering – supports and develops young leaders from the ELCA and around the world as they participate in the body of Christ together.

Growing into a leadership role

Participating in the 2009 International Companion Program “changed my point of view and way of thinking,” says 23-year-old Holly Hanitrinirina Sthela Gun of Antanarivo, Madagascar. “Sthela” to North American friends, she connected deeply with people of all ages during her homestay in the ELCA Rocky Mountain Synod, a companion synod to the Malagasy Lutheran Church.

Polishing her English and worshiping with a Lutheran congregation “totally different from where I come from,” has helped Sthela grow in faith and feel comfortable in international roles. Today she serves as youth liaison to the four ELCA synods and the five Malagasy Lutheran Church synods that relate to one another. When new participants in the Young Adults in Global Mission program arrive in Madagascar, Sthela helps orient them to her country, culture and church.

Finding a way through obstacles

For Ashraf Tannous of Ramallah, Palestine, the 2003 Youth Gathering was a key step in discerning whether to study medicine or theology.

But his trip almost didn’t happen. A U.S. visa requires an interview – a challenge for a West Bank resident with a Palestinian passport. “I applied for a permit to go to Jerusalem, and every time it was negative,” he remembers. “Even the embassy said to the Israeli office, ‘This guy has to come for an interview’ but there was still no answer.”

Eventually, he made it to the U.S. Embassy – and then had to wait again for a permit to travel from the West Bank to Ben Gurion airport. The permit was issued at the last possible minute.

“We came during the Second Intifada, and for me the trip was really something extraordinary,” Ashraf says. “I met students from many places, especially Africa, and I was hosted by a generous and unforgettable family, the Olsens, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

The Olsens found Ashraf equally unforgettable, as they learned about church and family life in Palestine – as well as checkpoints and curfews, soldiers and guns. “To meet someone who had retained a positive, contemplative spirit throughout all the strife in his life left such a mark on me,” says Erik Olsen. Now 27 and a teacher of low-income, mostly Hispanic elementary students at an after-school program, he was 15 when he and Ashraf traveled together to the Youth Gathering.

Today, as pastor of the Beit Sahour congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, Ashraf remains an honorary member of the Olsen family.

“I was so proud of him when he was going to be ordained,” says Erik’s mother, Joan Olsen, a member of Joy Lutheran in Tulsa. The Olsens have welcomed other International Companion Program participants into their home, including 2009 participants Davis Karenzi and Erica Darling of Rwanda.

Getting to ‘yes’

While ELCA synods prepare for their young summer visitors, the ELCA Global Mission Formation team is accompanying Elizabeth and other young applicants through the ups and downs of the U.S. visa process.

The team is also setting up an exchange program designed to foster long-lasting, cross-cultural, intercontinental relationships among young “glocal” leaders.

Will their lives change? Yes, insists Sthela.

“I could never be who I am today if I didn’t go to the Youth Gathering when I was 16,” she says. “It has changed me. I am so thankful for that.”

Anne Basye
Basye, a freelance writer living in Mount Vernon, Wash., is the author of Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal (ELCA, 2007).

Read more about: