Monday, February 25, 2013

Moments of Clarity at the United Nations

What follows is a cross-post I recently wrote for Voices for Change, the advocacy ministries blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  I highly encourage you to check out Voices for Change frequently, as its one of the best places to find out about the amazing advocacy work Lutherans are doing across the country.

Having interned here at the United Nations with the Lutheran Office for World Community for almost six months, my friends frequently ask what an average day is like. I usually respond that I am engaged in exciting advocacy work: planning for the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women with ecumenical partners, meeting with amazing people from faraway countries (including speaking with two Nobel Peace Prize winners) and covering the planning process for a new set of global development goals, among other things. Upon hearing about this work, my friends sometimes say it all sounds romantic in a certain way, if not glamorous, to be around global leaders at the United Nations, or that it must feel great to have a job helping people.

What does not always find its way into these conversations is that although I do occasionally meet important leaders and I sometimes feel like I am helping people, that is certainly not always the case. Sure, I get to sit in on all sorts of meetings, but they often involve lower-level diplomats reading a technical report verbatim. I might get to help plan some really powerful events, but that usually looks like waiting for email, updating a website or stuffing folders. Even when it does feel like I am actively working toward creating positive change at the United Nations, that change often seems many years and many obstacles away. In the midst of all these everyday tasks and difficulties, it’s easy to get frustrated and the people we are trying to accompany and empower can seem quite remote.

Luckily, in this advocacy work I have been blessed by moments of clarity, moments where it felt like I knew exactly why I was at the United Nations and exactly what I could do to make a positive impact, even if small. One such moment took place a few weeks ago while taking part in a grassroots advocacy event around recent event. For months I had been learning about the situation in Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, much of which is covered by the Sahara Desert. In Jan. 2012 an armed conflict broke out in the north, only to be complicated by a military coup the following March. Once the rebels, backed by a number of armed groups, took over a large portion of the country including the ancient city of Timbuktu, French forces, along with troops from elsewhere in Africa, intervened to support the Malian army in recapturing the lost territory. Currently, the international community is dealing with allegations of human rights violations, promoting inclusion of the politically marginalized, humanitarian concerns such as food security and how to keep the peace once the territorial integrity of the country is fully restored.

Given the devastation around this conflict, you can imagine my apprehension when I was asked to accompany a young man to his deportation hearing after the event. This hearing would decide whether he would immediately be sent back to his home country, Mali. After speaking with the man about his persecution and later escape to the United States as teenager, I sat behind him throughout the hearing, an action I was told would encourage his better treatment by the court. I doubt it had much to do with me, but his ruling ended up being postponed a number of months, we formed a relationship, and he will work with my congregation on additional advocacy actions in the future.

I have spent numerous meetings taking notes on violence in Mali, feeling like there was little I could to help. Educating ourselves and working to influence decision makers at the United Nations can help build a more peaceful world; This experience with the young man from Mali reminded me to connect all of the dots between this work in public policy and accompaniment of our struggling neighbor. In this moment of clarity, I realized that simply accompanying a person through a very difficult circumstance could at least provide temporary support and hopefully make a very big difference.
Dustin is currently a vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan, having recently completed his second year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice building in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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