Leaving my YAV community last August and moving somewhere new involved plenty of challenges, including not having a sense of community or church home with the same shared understanding and values. In Boston we talked about food and hunger, and how it relates to poverty and wider social injustice, all of the time whether in our personal daily lives, in our work sites, or in terms of our faith. We had a mutual vocabulary and passion; my community is what I miss most from my year.
Since I have been feeling somewhat lost and am trying to stay connected to that concept of “simple living,” I was incredibly grateful to discover and participate in some ways the larger Presbyterian Church engages in social justice issues and advocacy.
The first was attending the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in NYC in March with the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and the Young Women’s Ministry and Presbyterian College Women. This year’s theme was reviewing the Beijing Platform for Action that the U.N. adopted in 1995 by the 4th World Conference on Women which affirms the fundamental human rights of women and girls. Even though the U.N. declared that women are entitled to equality in public and private spheres, leadership and decision-making roles, healthcare, and education, no country has reached gender equity– we have a lot of work to do.
I heard stories from women from all over the world, of oppression and violence, exploitation and displacement, of faith being used to heal and to harm. But in the end they were all stories of hope; everyone was so optimistic, motivated, and passionate about their country or region and the amazing work being done on the ground. I often felt small and overwhelmed by the world’s large, complicated, and complex problems; but at the same time I felt inspired and was in awe by the brave women who have committed their lives to working for justice.
The Presbyterian Church is part of Ecumenical Women at the U.N., an international coalition of Christian denominations and organizations. It was empowering to feel a part of a much-larger network of Christian women who are praying and advocating for gender justice. We came together from all denominations speaking many different languages to worship God, pray, and share our stories. One of my favorite moments during worship was when we all said the Lord’s Prayer in our native language– it was a beautiful and powerful sound.
Just as community was such an important aspect of my YAV year, I found a sense of community with the other young adults in the delegation. We spent time together debriefing every night, as well as ended up spending most meals and lots of free time together. We shared what we learned and the stories we heard that really moved us, discussed our struggles and theological truths, shared our joys and doubts, and even marched together in the International Women’s Day March. I am thankful God put so many fierce, inspiring, and wonderful young women in my life.
I also had the opportunity to attend Ecumenical Advocacy Days in D.C. in April. The topic of the weekend was “Breaking the Chains: Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation.”
There were amazing speakers and workshops about different forms of exploitation, from human trafficking to environmental issues, mass incarceration and returning citizens to education, immigrant family detention to US drug policies and private prisons. It was inspiring to learn about Presbyterian and ecumenical programs doing important work in our communities.
I am grateful there was a large group of YAV/As at EAD; I got to connect with old friends and make new ones. It was wonderful to be with a group of people who inherently “get” parts of my YAV year that would take forever to explain to anyone else. We shared stories from our YAV experiences, our heartbreaks and joys, our anger and our laughter. We also met other young people doing faith-based service programs from other denominations, and decided there should be an ecumenical service corps organization or conference. (Someone should really get on that!) There were young people from all over the country who share an understanding and care about social justice and creating a better future. It is refreshing and encouraging to know there are other young Christians who are passionate about the same issues and are doing similar work all over the country. I think we forget we’re a powerful force to be reckoned with. The focus of the conference, and of our legislative “asks” during our lobby visits, were mass incarceration and immigrant family detention. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country; we have 5% of the world’s population but we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. One in three young African American men is incarcerated by the criminal justice system in some form, either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole.
When we met with our elected officials we asked them to support Smarter Sentencing reform. There were around 16 of us from Iowa participating in lobby day, many of whom are current or retired pastors, including prison chaplains. We met with Senator Grassley’s office, a key legislative target for our ask. It was clear that we have different ideological perspectives, especially on the criminal justice system, which can be daunting and disheartening. But for 30 minutes they had to listen to us as we shared our stories and those from our communities, our faith, love, and compassion those imprisoned or exploited. (I would encourage everyone to contact Grassley’s office and tell them you support reforming mandatory minimum sentencing.) After YAV I have found it difficult to stay as engaged with faith-based social justice work. In Boston it was easy– it was our jobs, what we talked about at home, what we were reading and thinking about, and literally what we ate for dinner. Some YAVAs go to seminary; however, not all of us are called to that kind of ministry and it is important to recognize and encourage a variety of faith leadership. I am thankful there are opportunities to stay involved and that the Church is investing in young adults in other powerful and meaningful ways.
Libby McDermott served as a YAV in Boston 2013-14, as part of the Food Justice League, and worked with First United Presbyterian Church Cambridge and as an organizer for Bread for the World. She will soon be working with Habitat for Humanity in Atlanta as volunteer management assistant. Follow her on Twitter.