Augustana Lutheran Church, Portland, Ore.
Senior at Grant High School in Portland and founder/chair of the Youth Leadership Academy to End Gun Violence, presented by Lift Every Voice Oregon

My favorite church memory is from when I was little. I danced in the aisles with my brothers during the closing song at worship.

Having my youth group during this pandemic has been particularly helpful. We meet once a week on Zoom and talk a lot about our personal lives, how school is going, that kind of thing. We share what we’re thankful for and what our hopes are. We’ve done a lot of volunteer work over the years, like collecting clothes for a women’s shelter and raising money for the solar panels at church.

I have a history of pastors in my family. On my mom’s side of the family, my grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were all Lutheran pastors. I grew up visiting my grandfather and going to his congregation. He worked almost 60 years in congregations in eastern Iowa before he retired a few years ago.

My mom and dad have been members of our church since 2002, and my brothers and I have been since birth. (My mom was on the cover of this magazine in the 90s!) The concept of faith and having faith and believing even in difficult times is a lesson that’s been consistent from my parents. The moral principles of kindness and acceptance were ingrained in us our whole lives.

After the Parkland mass shooting in 2018, I wanted to do something to affect change. My pastor, Mark Knutson, and others in my congregation and community founded Lift Every Voice Oregon, and I started volunteering with the group in eighth grade. Lift Every Voice Oregon is an interfaith movement advocating for safer communities and preventing gun violence. Now I’m on the core leadership team, which is working to pass gun safety laws through the Oregon ballot initiative process. We filed initiative petitions which, if we can gather enough voter signatures, will be on the Oregon ballot in November 2022. The measures would ban the sale of semi-automatic assault firearms and large-capacity magazines, and would require a permit to purchase, completed background checks and training before purchasing a gun. Hopefully, we can move on these issues nationally, as well.

I started the Youth Leadership Academy with Lift Every Voice Oregon at the start of the pandemic to keep our group visible and engaged. Because of COVID-19, we couldn’t collect signatures for our ballot initiatives. The Youth Leadership Academy is a free, virtual conference on Zoom, focused on education, leadership and activism to prevent gun violence. For speakers, we had civil rights and faith leaders, gun violence survivors, youth activists, artists, gun violence researchers and elected officials. We had our first academy for five days in early summer 2020, and our second was over four weekends this past April and May. Between the two events, we had 250 participants from 25 states. It’s been a really great way to build our network and bring youth into this important movement.

“Gun violence is a solvable problem. It can be hard to find hope, but there are proven ways to prevent deaths and injuries, and we should do everything within our power to prevent these incidents.”

I know a lot of students who are anxious about gun violence. I think the fact that any kid in the country has to worry about it or experience that should be a moral call to action for everybody. This is a public health crisis and we should approach it as such.

Research shows that gun violence is a solvable problem. It can be hard to find hope, but there are proven ways to prevent deaths and injuries, and we should do everything within our power to prevent these incidents. People don’t need to die needlessly. We shouldn’t have to worry about being shot when we’re in school or at movie theaters or anywhere else. There are commonsense solutions available, and I believe we can create a more peaceful society.

Writing is a passion. I did a creative writing program with the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio at the University of Iowa this summer, focusing on screenwriting. It’s super fun. Writing journalistically as a reporter for my school magazine has been a great experience as well. This school year, I’ll be a story editor.

I pray for the victims of gun violence and their families, and for change to happen on that front. I’ve been concerned about the large number of shootings in our community and nationally too. I bring personal, minor, struggles to God. I give thanks for my family, which has been a fantastic source a support, and my good health.

The 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston was a profound spiritual experience. It was my first time going to a religious event of that size. I’ve grown up in Portland, and there aren’t as many religious people here or youth I can talk to beyond youth group. I appreciated the communal element—connecting with other youth across the country and bonding with my youth group.

I play trumpet in my school band. It’s been a great way to make friends. Last year band was online, so we would all play with microphones off. It was individual except toward the end; there’s this program that helped us sync up the different recording tracks. I’m looking forward to this school year when we’ll play together in person.

I see God in my family and the support they’ve given me through the years. Also, in Lift Every Voice Oregon and what we’ve done promoting our ballot initiatives and trying to prevent needless deaths. God is with the people who work hard there.

I’m a Lutheran because I’ve grown up in the church. It’s been part of my family’s heritage for generations. For me, being Lutheran means stepping outside the walls of my church and focusing on important issues of peace and justice and finding ways to make my community a better place.

Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a content editor of Living Lutheran. Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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