What is it like to be young today?
In a culture where many people are connected to technology for the better part of the day, where the minutiae of everyday life are publicly shared on the Internet, and where unemployment rates are skyrocketing, making it even more challenging for young adults to find jobs, how do people come of age and learn to recognize and achieve their God-given potential?
For a growing group of young adults, the answer seems to be found in acts of service. By reaching out beyond themselves, young men and women are making a difference in their communities and learning about themselves and God along the way.
Take Erika Boudreau, for example. The 18-year-old from London, Ontario, never really thought of herself as someone who would take part in a mission trip. But after a casual comment to her mother, she found herself signed up for the Talbot Street CRC (London, Ont.) Serve trip.
Boudreau and her Serve team served at a soup kitchen based in North Reformed Church in Newark, N. J. They also cleaned out supply closets, an office, and a classroom at a school that had been flooded.
“Newark is a city that is run down by poverty and violence,” Boudreau said. “On our first night there, the pastor made it very clear that we were not there to fix the problems of people. We were there to sit with the people who came, to talk to them, and to listen.”
That’s just what they did. While they worked hard to clean out water-damaged rooms or to serve in the soup kitchen, their biggest contribution was building relationships with people in the community.
“Before I went to Newark, I heard the saying that a smile could brighten someone’s day. That saying became very true during my Serve trip,” Boudreau said. “The simple power of sitting with people and talking about anything—music, the headlines in the newspaper, even candy—could bring happiness to someone’s day.”
And that wasn’t the only lesson she learned. She said the experience taught her to get to know people before rushing to judge them.
“Ninety percent of the people in Newark are people who, on a regular day, I would never sit down and talk to,” she said. “While I was there, I did talk to them. I heard some of the best stories of hope, love, and the power of God in someone’s life. Getting to genuinely know someone is so much more enjoyable than basing your opinion on something you have only heard.”
She also learned about herself and about God’s ability to use her skills, interests, and talents to make a difference in the world.
“I never thought God would use me, but he has used me in ways I never thought he would,” she said. “Since Serve, God has sent me on a crazy journey of self-discovery.”
Boudreau was one of 1,943 Christian Reformed young adults who gave a week of their time to share the gospel through Youth Unlimited Serve projects in 2012.
“That translates into 49,250 hours of students hearing powerful testimonies from individuals who received their work,” said Jeff Kruithof, Youth Unlimited Director.
“Those students had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of how they fit into God’s overarching plan of redemption and restoration. They also learned that the spread of the gospel is most effective when the work of their hands matches the love expressed in their words.”
This phenomenon is not restricted to North America. Young adults around the world face similar challenges in terms of tough decisions, high unemployment, and uncertainty about the future. They are also finding similar life-changing success by serving others.
Volunteering in Senegal
Ndeye Maty Diagne is a 22-year-old woman from Keur Massar community on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal.
Life for girls isn’t easy in Senegal. They receive less schooling than boys their age and have few opportunities for employment. Girls also have very little say in their lives and aren’t allowed to speak up to their elders.
This leaves them vulnerable. Their parents can pressure them into early marriages—sometimes when they are as young as 13. Girls are also often the victims of unwanted sexual attention and may be coerced into exchanging sexual favors for good grades in school, or for gifts and money from older men. The results are high rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, early unwanted pregnancies, sexual abuse, and violence.
World Renew, the development and relief agency of the Christian Reformed Church, has been working with the Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELS) in Senegal since 1998 to help young adults like Diagne to overcome these challenges and achieve their God-given potential.
When she was 15, Diagne joined the World Renew and EELS Adolescent Health program. A recent survey showed that, as a result of this program, young adults have changed their behaviors significantly. The average age for marriage has gone up and the incidence of forced marriage has decreased.
Moreover, there has been a substantial decrease in the number of unwanted pregnancies. Participants in the program say that they feel capable of dealing with unwanted sexual advances. There are also community action groups that spread the messages of the program through community events and discussions.
The key to this success is the young adults themselves. Teens join groups called Learning Circles where they learn about health issues, their rights, and how to start important conversations with their parents and elders. The groups are led by other young people, known as peer educators, who know the issues group members face because they face them as well.
“My peer educator’s name was Khady Diaw,” said Diagne. “I learned so much from her and the program. I learned about the causes and consequences of several illnesses like sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS. I learned about the evils of early or forced marriages and rape.”
She also learned that she had skills and talents that she could contribute to society. After completing all 48 lessons of the Learning Circle program, Diagne decided to join a local Youth Action Group to advocate on behalf of young adults in her community. As a volunteer, she now organizes advocacy events and leads discussions in her community. She has also spoken on radio and television to communicate her message to a larger audience.
“I am one of the leaders of my Youth Action Group. The peer educators have picked me, and I am very proud of that,” Diagne said. “The work is very interesting and motivating. It has allowed me to get to know many youths and neighborhoods. It has taught me so much, and I am always learning more.”
Nicaragua Youth Reach Out
Similarly, in Nicaragua young men and women are using their time and talents to reach out to other youths in their schools and communities.
High rates of unemployment and low levels of education leave many Nicaraguan young adults uncertain about their future. Some turn to drugs or gangs to fill the gap. A culture of machismo puts additional pressure on young men to have sex at an early age and with many partners.
The risks of all these behaviors are high. They can expose young people to HIV and sexually transmitted infections. They can also limit opportunities for future employment and success.
Through its partner, Accion Medica Cristiana (AMC), World Renew has been helping young people in Nicaragua put their lives back on the right path. David Reynoso Velazquez Aguirre, now 25, is a great example. He attended a workshop on HIV with other men from his church. What he learned changed his life.
“This was the first time in my church there was an invitation to talk on this topic,” he recalled. “Other organizations hold HIV campaigns once in a while, but they don’t have the same focus as World Renew and AMC had with this project. The difference with AMC is they took it much further. They didn’t just hold a one-day campaign. They gave follow-up, and it was a more extensive project.”
Aguirre was so impressed by what he learned that when AMC asked him to lead workshops in other area churches that he eagerly accepted the opportunity. While he had been tested and found to be HIV negative, he knew that he could just as easily have been HIV positive. That motivated him to share lessons with others.
“People accepted my invitation to the workshops because they had trust in me as a leader with a good testimony,” he said. “I then had the opportunity to get to know many brothers in Christ and to see many of them gain new knowledge that they hadn’t had before.”
Blessings Through Volunteering
While young adults like Aguirre, Diagne, and Boudreau are finding ways to use their time and skills to make a meaningful difference to others, the experience is also having an impact on them and their faith.
“I had been to school, but I owe everything I know to the program,” said Diagne. She went on to explain that it has empowered her to take charge of her future. Though she lacks much formal schooling, Diagne has become a day care teacher. She cites her experiences with the Youth Action Group as giving her confidence and communication skills to achieve this dream.
Aguirre said his experience has deepened his faith. Today he serves as a counselor to other young adults and is the president of a men’s group in his church.
They aren’t alone. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada recently released the results of a survey called “Hemorrhaging Faith,” looking at why and when young adults are leaving, staying, or returning to the church.
One of the things that they discovered after interviewing more than 2,000 young adults is that volunteering and service at a young age is directly correlated with active involvement in the church later.
“We have examined responses to several questions that we believed would help us understand spiritual turning points in the lives of young adults,” the report says, before going on to explain that mission trips are one of the most significant activities “positively correlated with active participation in the church as young adults.”
“Very few things have had a greater impact on my life than the Serve trip to Newark did,” she said. “Serve taught me the power of God to turn someone’s life around, which if I ever doubted, I no longer do.
“It also taught me that God is truly everywhere. I saw hope when it appeared to be total darkness; I saw love when all I thought I would see was hate; I saw beauty when everything was broken. And I saw the evidence of new life amidst everything we experienced. Everyone we talked to was so full of life and hope believing in a better tomorrow, not at all the way I thought it would be.
“If you are willing to step out of your comfort zone and open your mind and your heart to God, there is no telling what he will use you to do, but I promise you it will be worth it.”
Opportunities to Serve
The Christian Reformed Church and its agencies offer a variety of service opportunities for young people. Here are some of them:
- Opportunities for individuals or groups
- Rehoboth Christian School, Rehoboth, New Mexico
- Ministry to Seafarers, Montreal, Quebec
- Ministry Internship with AJS, Grand Rapids or Honduras
- Ministry Internship with Good Works, Appalachia, Ohio
- Ministry Internship with All Nations Christian Reformed Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia
- Romania Child Development Volunteer
- Various opportunities with Omwabini Rescue Steps, Kimilili, Kenya
- Internships with Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Centres, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Edmonton, Alberta; or Regina, Saskatchewan
- A variety of service-learning opportunities
- An all-campus Bible study each fall (100-plus groups of students, faculty, staff) calvin.edu/faith/bible-study/sermon-on-the-mount/
- Worship Apprentice Program calvin.edu/faith/discipleship/students/worship-apprentices.html
- Jubilee Fellows Program (includes a 10-week ministry internship) calvin.edu/academic/congregational-studies/jubilee-fellows/
- Barnabas leader in the residence halls (lead Bible studies, worship, mentor) calvin.edu/faith/discipleship/students/barnabas.html
- Residence Hall Community Partnerships calvin.edu/slc/programs/rhcp/
- Spring Break Service-Learning trips calvin.edu/slc/programs/spring-break/
- The John M. Perkins Leadership Fellows program (which begins this fall) calvin.edu/leadership-fellows/
- Comenius Scholars Program calvin.edu/career/students-alumni/jobs-internships/internships.html
- Facing Your Future: calvinseminary.edu/admissions/fyf/
- International work teams
- International service & learning teams
- Individual opportunities
- Hope Equals
- Cohort Opportunities
- Sexual Assault Prevention Teams
- Serve With a Purpose (SWAP) program
- International internships and opportunities
- International work teams: Haiti, Honduras, Japan
- North American Disaster Response groups
- College semester internships and interim opportunities