Members of the youth group at the Congregational Church in Exeter UCC had two choices: they could cross the border illegally and risk being caught by border patrol, or they could go through the official border crossing and risk being sent back to where they came from. Understanding the decision they were facing and it's implications was the idea behind the Big Night of Hope, a refugee simulation experience held at the Exeter, N.H., church.
"We wanted an experiential learning experience rather than a lecture or a film," said Jen Daysa, the congregation's director of youth and family ministries. "The kids went through the discovery process on what it's like to be a refugee."
The ecumenical effort involved 30 youth from three area churches as part of an effort to highlight social justice issues and make youth more aware of the world around them.
Daysa used a resource called Passages, an educational tool developed by the United Nations to create a better understanding of the problems refugees face. After tailoring it to young people in grades 6-12, the participants experienced everything from trying to cross the border, to language barriers, to looking for a place to live.
For example, the illegal border crossing was set up in a dark room, with fog machines running to make it even harder to see. Adult volunteers were standing by with flashlights waiting to catch anyone who tried to cross. Another room in the church was set up as the official border crossing offices. The adults were told to make the process difficult for the youth, presenting them forms to fill out written in gibberish to represent language barriers and the legal jargon refugees are often faced with. Other adults acted as aid workers sent in to help intermittently.
"It was a neat experience," Daysa said. "Most of them were really feeling the frustrations that can come from this scenario."
The group participated in a debriefing after the event where the youth were asked to think through the challenges that refugees face and ways the church and the youth group could get involved and help. The youth offered suggestions like helping refugees find housing, helping them fill out job applications, and other ideas Daysa thinks they were able to come up with after experiencing some of the roadblocks firsthand. But another important outcome was having the youth participate in an ecumenical event with area youth from other churches.
"They realized that even though we might worship a little differently and do things a little differently we can all be really passionate about social justice issues and work together," she said.
The Congregational Church in Exeter UCC has recently incorporated more social justice issues into its youth ministry after a group of high-school-age members visited the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministry offices during a trip to Washington D.C. last year. Earlier this year, the group watched the film "Made in L.A.," which highlights the topic of immigration and immigrants who work in the L.A. garment industry for minimal wages and in subpar conditions.
"They were really inspired by that, so that's why we took more of a social justice perspective this year," Daysa said.