By Sarah Carson
“I was 6, and I spun a globe, and my finger landed on Uganda,” she remembers. “I talked to my mom and said I’m going there some day. And, I did.”
The spinning of the globe was just the beginning of Jen’s story. When she was a teenager, she did end up visiting Uganda, and since then she’s been pursuing her passion for international development and social justice.
It’s a calling that’s taken her to Africa, South America and, most recently, to a summit of international leaders and thinkers at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, hosted in part by the ELCA and ELCA World Hunger. In short, her life has become a mission to speak out for the poor, hungry and marginalized.
“From very young I knew that was my calling — this dream that I couldn’t even escape from,” Jen recalls.
In college she studied Spanish and international development. When she graduated, she thought about joining the Peace Corps, but her pastor recommended that she participate in an ELCA churchwide ministry that offers young adults a year-long international mission experience, so that they may develop as leaders and grow in their faith.
“I was accepted and placed in northern Argentina,” Jen says. “We worked with children in an urban poor area trying to provide them with a safe space to get away from the mud, broken glass, and the violence and alcohol.”
Jen also began working with a nongovernmental organization in Argentina that focused on maintaining biodiversity and food sustainability in small-scale farming communities. “I was blessed to work with small-scale, organic farmers. They worked to find a market in their small towns. They would have a farmers’ market, and they would exchange seeds,” Jen says.
“Part of my job was to interview the women who took care of these burdens and share their information. I would travel from one small town to the next and share the information.”
Since leaving Argentina, Jen hasn’t stopped her attention to the issues of food sustainability and hunger. She now volunteers as an ELCA World Hunger leader with the ELCA Eastern North Dakota Synod and is exploring partnership with ELCA World Hunger through her job as community center director of Churches United for the Homeless, a shelter in Moorhead, Minn.
ELCA World Hunger seeks to address the root causes of hunger both domestically and internationally through relief, development, education and advocacy. And that’s something Jen found easy to get behind.
She says there’s a shared philosophy between the shelter and ELCA World Hunger. “ELCA World Hunger represents a lot of the vision I have for the church and the hope that I hold in my heart for what I think the church should be,” Jen says.
It was also her work with ELCA World Hunger that landed her and several of her colleagues at the United Nations as panel participants at the Commission on the Status of Women. The theme, “Empowerment of Rural Women and their Role in Poverty and Hunger Eradication Development and Current Challenges,” was something Jen certainly knows a lot about.
“It was a panel of strong women who are working, using the church as their common ground,” she says. “These women shared their perspective (and) their stories (about) the work they’ve done and what their visions and hopes are both for the world and for their church.”
The panel also gave Jen and her colleagues an opportunity to meet a famous, like-minded woman — Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran peace activist from Liberia who won the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Leymah Gbowee was there and spoke with us,” Jen says. “It was a great opportunity to honor her commitment and to look at our own stories, and see where we need to be focusing and persevering.”
Jen was one of several ELCA members who attended the commission. Kate Gaskill, who works in the area of grassroots advocacy, says ELCA members “believe advocacy is a public witness to the gospel of Christ where this church speaks with and on behalf of others in need. Through advocacy, the ELCA intercedes and creates space for the voiceless by engaging governments to aid immediate need and shatter deeply embedded cycles of hunger and poverty.”
Passionate about faith
Though Jen’s own story is only just beginning, her work so far has given her a unique perspective on the intersection of faith, justice and hope.
“My story — in between the spinning of the globe and first going to East Africa or going to Argentina — the time in between led me to a place where I knew that I would forever depend on God and that I was really passionate about my faith. The walk in between led me to just know that I had to follow, and I couldn’t deny what I had been called into.”
“Now I am in love,” Jen continues. “I am wholeheartedly in love with this incredible God who loves human beings and all of creation, and I love that he asked me to participate in that. I’m more in love by the day.”