It’s been a little over a year since the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, yet the significance of this event for the 31,000 Lutherans who attended and for those impacted by their faithful witness continues.  

Under the theme “This changes everything” (Ephesians 2:8), youth and adult leaders engaged in various faith formation activities, including a day dedicated to exploring the Gathering’s Interactive Learning Center in Houston’s NRG Center. In that space, many groups participated in ELCA World Hunger’s Global Farm Challenge 

As part of that challenge, youth raised funds leading up to the June 26-July 1 Gathering for the agriculture-related programs of ELCA World Hunger. They then delivered their donations to the Global Farm Challenge exhibit. There, youth participated in a virtual reality experience that immersed them in the world of a smallholder farmer and other activities. 

Thanks to a generous matching grant, donations toward ELCA World Hunger’s agricultural work totaled more than $1 million. But the impact of the challenge goes beyond funds. Not only did farmers receive vital support, youth and their congregations were also transformed.  

From Pennsylvania to Uganda 

John Smaligo, a pastor of Harrold Zion Lutheran in Greensburg, Pa., said the congregation has a history of supporting ELCA World Hunger through ELCA Good Gifts and more. “Since we have sponsored pigs, chickens and cows, our attention has been drawn to farming and animals,” he said.  

For Harrold Zion’s youth group, fundraising for and engaging in the farm challenge “reinforced our emphasis on how the sponsorship does not simply supply animals but assists the farmer through the multipurpose of each animal,” he added.  

Like the seeds falling on good soil producing more than what was sown (Matthew 13:8), the church’s sustainable agricultural work shows one animal can change many lives. 

Harrold Zion’s commitment to combating worldwide hunger connects them with farmers like Nsamba Fred, who lives in Nkoote Village, Uganda.Like many fathers, Fred wants his children to learn and be healthy. But after his wife died in 2017, he lacked the resources to support their education. With no income source, Fred and his six children ate one meal per day. 

Then his family of seven received five goats that changed their lives. The goats were procured through a local nonprofit that ELCA World Hunger supports—RACOBAO (the Rural Action Community Based Organization), which partners with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). RACOBAO also taught Fred innovative techniques to grow plants for food, how to maintain a kitchen garden and how to care for his goats. 

Now he and his children grow their own vegetables for food. When the goats began to multiply, Fred sold them, helping his family meet their needs while sharing resources with his community. Undergirded by funds from the Global Farm Challenge, Fred’s family has food security—and his kids are back in school. 

From Illinois to Cambodia 

When adult leader Jarrod Gaither accompanied youth from his congregation, Grace Lutheran in Evanston, Ill., to the Gathering, he said he felt “confident that our youth would walk away with knowledge, questions or insight that would spark meaningful conversation.” 

For Gaither, “the structure of the [virtual reality] challenge—how youth were given different advantages and setbacks—did an excellent job of illustrating how difficult it is for many people around the world to access essential resources, and how easy we have it in our community,” he said. 

The youth learned how access to resources like water and basic tools can impact someone’s everyday life—and their future. That connects their congregation to farmers like Soun Sopheap, who lives in Kirriaphiwat Village, Cambodia. 

Sopheap and her husband, Te Samnang, have seven children. Their family works hard—her four oldest children, two daughters and two sons, are all employed, and their three youngest sons are in school, she said.  

While Sopheap grew vegetables on her land, she said collecting the water her family needed for all aspects of life took valuable time. She also worried about her children collecting water. 

“…they felt–and continue to feel–a responsibility to help. I think that speaks volumes as to how the Global Farm Challenge was a meaningful experience for our group.”

Then, with funds from ELCA World Hunger’s Global Farm Challenge, a local nonprofit provided Sopheap and other nearby families with a new water system and trained them in the latest agricultural skills. That nonprofit was Life With Dignity, also an LWF partner. 

Today Sopheap’s vegetable garden is easier to water and thriving. She plans to grow vegetables on additional land near her family’s home. More water also means she can raise more animals—adding to their chickens and 10 cows. 

“I would thank ELCA donor[s] very much [for] supporting my community,” she said. “The water system for my community [helps] people to improve daily uses, and for chicken[s], animals and vegetable[s] to be better for our live[s].” 

For Grace and Harrold Zion, supporting ELCA hunger efforts continues to be a passion. 

“We make certain that we continue an emphasis on working with World Hunger each Lent,” Smaligo said. “The raising of funds for cows was extremely successful.” (A cardboard cow named “Moooses” helps moo-ve parishioners to give.) 

This year, Smaligo said the congregation sponsored 30 latrines through ELCA Good Gifts.  

And at Grace, Gaither was inspired by the action his youth took after returning from the Gathering: “I was proud of our youth who were inspired by the challenge to raise the $500 donated after the Gathering, as they felt—and continue to feel—a responsibility to help. I think that speaks volumes as to how the Global Farm Challenge was a meaningful experience for our group.” 

Rachel K. Hindery
Rachel K. Hindery is a freelance reporter and a member of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Ill.

Read more about: