Jorge was born in Mexico, where he lost a number of family members, including his mother, to the conflicts among drug cartels. When he decided to seek asylum in the United States, he found himself detained at the border for 12 hours. He then spent 15 more days in a detention center. Now he is in the United States, waiting for his asylum case to come before a judge. His hearing is scheduled for January 2014.
He traveled to the ELCA Youth Gathering held in New Orleans in July, so that American youth might learn from his experience. To share his story, he took part in a special exhibit called The Wall, a part of the Practice Peacemaking component of the Gathering where teens could hear the stories of young people around the world who have lived through war and conflict.
“We really put our resources into bringing the people here because we’re convinced that God shows up most readily in relationships, and we need the Gathering people to be with the people from those countries, sharing those stories, making those connections,” says Jason Reed, team leader for The Wall.
Tearing Down Walls
The Wall featured three sections. First was the Tearing Down Walls area where Gathering attendees could meet and experience the stories of young people from Palestine, Malaysia, Bosnia, Mexico, El Salvador and Africa.
Fatuma Juma of Nairobi, Kenya, met young people at the East Africa section of The Wall. “I’m here as a peacemaker,” she shares. “Ensuring the people get to learn what happened in East Africa and on the African continent where most of the countries have been engaging in civil war.”
“The kids who have been coming to The Wall,” she continues, “they’ve been feeling very sad. The majority have never experienced war, so they are kind of shocked.”
Gasna Kapisazovic was at the Bosnian section of The Wall sharing her story. Born in Sarajevo, she was 4 years old when the siege of Sarajevo began. She still remembers when her family escaped the siege via a tunnel through a mountain. “They started digging it on one side and then on the other side, and they didn’t know if it was going to meet, and luckily for us, it did,” she says.
The Bosnian section of The Wall had to be accessed via a tunnel meant to simulate the experience. “We put the tunnel at the entrance so that all the participants who come to visit the Bosnia wall have to come through the tunnel,” says Gasna. “They get a glance, maybe, of war experience.”
Patrick Higgins, who visited the ELCA Youth Gathering from Philadelphia, says, “One of the things from The Wall that surprised me the most was definitely the conflict in Bosnia, because I definitely knew nothing going into it.”
Making Us Whole
After young people met the representatives in the Tearing Down Walls area, they could continue onto the second component, Making Us Whole, where they could reflect on their experiences and learn what they could do to help.
Carolyn Frost visited the Making Us Whole area with her pastor, Cheryl Walenta, of Bethany Lutheran Church in Dallas, where they discussed their experiences and made friendship bracelets to send overseas.
“We’re making peace bracelets,” Carolyn says. “It’s to send them over to kids in Afghanistan and Iraq, so that they know that people are thinking about them and praying for peace with them.”
What struck them most about their experience at The Wall?
“Well, I thought government had more of handle on the drug cartel than they did, so I was really surprised that the cartel would actually make threats,” reflects Carolyn.
“The immigration system in the United States is such a mess that (asylum seekers) could be waiting or they could be deported easily,” says Cheryl. “There are so many laws that are going into effect now that make it easier to deport people that it’s really frightening.”
In the third section of The Wall, Joining Together, visitors could share their experience via Facebook or YouTube.
Shawn Salsbury of Maryland says in his video response, “One thing that shocked me about this exhibit was learning how many current conflicts there are around the world and how many people are dying around the world.”
And Trevor Wyrick of Fort Smith, Ark., says, “I think our church would benefit very much from these stories, hearing about the world, and tearing down the walls and the boundaries between anger and hate between other countries.”
ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson even posted his own response. “Walking through here I’m reminded of the times that I’ve seen The Wall, that wall that for Israelis symbolizes protection and for Palestinians, it’s a symbol of occupation and division,” he says. “It is amazing how one wall can hold such different perspectives. It’s my hope that kids that come through here — and some that don’t even know where Palestine is and who the Palestinian people are — will have eyes opened.”
Jason hopes that the experience will lead those who visited to spread their new awareness beyond the Gathering. “We need people to be able to do something after they walk out of the door, basically to be able to connect with each other and their friends and churches beyond here,” he says. “We want to see what the Holy Spirit can do even beyond this.” And while Jorge’s struggle will continue long after the event, he hopes that something positive can come out of meeting the youth at the Gathering.
“I’ve lost my mother. I’ve lost my roots in my country,” he says. Now he hopes that the youth who have heard his story will “value everything that they have and have a respect for it.”