Pentecost Offering helps bring together young adults from across the globe to change the world

April 30, 2024 by by Emily Enders Odom

YAVs are finding their way through New York City — and their own calling

Originally published by Presbyterian News Service. 

Once worlds away, Juliet Owuor [ō-war] and Maggie Collins now find themselves mere inches apart.

The two roommates share a small New York City apartment with two other young adults — but that’s not all they share.

Owuor — a native of Kenya, whose family eventually settled in Lubbock, Texas — and Collins, who calls Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home, were both commissioned last summer to serve as part of the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, through which they are seeking to find their calling.

Not to mention their way through the New York City subways.

“The Young Adult Volunteer program gave me the freedom to try something new without as much risk, like being in New York City where I wouldn’t be alone but where I knew I would have to learn how the subway system worked,” said Owuor, who stayed in her hometown of Lubbock for both her undergraduate and now graduate studies in environmental engineering at Texas Tech University. “To be here, I knew I had to let go of everything. I knew if I wanted something different, I would have to do something different.”

For Owuor, the “something different” that was just the right fit at the right time for her was the PC(USA)’s YAV program, an ecumenical, faith-based year of service lived out in sites across the U.S. and around the world.

In addition to its focus on national and international service, the YAV program — which has been changing the lives of young people ages 19–30 for nearly three decades — also emphasizes living in intentional Christian community, spiritual formation and vocational discernment.

Young adults like Owuor and Collins, who seek to transform not only themselves but also the systems that perpetuate injustice in the U.S. and across the globe, are supported, in part, through the Pentecost Offering, one of the PC(USA)’s four Special Offerings.

Not only do gifts to the Pentecost Offering benefit the YAV program, but the Offering also supports the Office of Presbyterian Youth and Triennium and the “Educate a Child, Transform the World” national initiative. A hallmark of this shared offering is that 40% of it is retained by individual congregations for local ministries, while the remaining 60% is used to support children at risk, youth and young adults through ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Collins said that she was initially attracted to the YAV program “because of the way that it gives young people the opportunity to live across the United States and the world in order to explore their passion and faith in a unique way.”

“I wanted to give myself some time to discern what I wanted to pursue in life, whether that is further schooling or jumping into the workforce,” she said.

Because of Collins’ strong commitment to the church’s role in advocating for peace, she was placed at the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, where she had previously served as a summer fellow three years ago during her undergraduate years at the University of Richmond. Her double major in leadership studies and French, the international language of diplomacy, has served her well in her current role.

As has her faith formation at Highland Presbyterian Church, where the Rev. Debbie Layman, associate pastor, continues to be both a mentor and a source of inspiration.

“My home church has always put an important focus on social justice and the church’s obligation to serve the greater community,” Collins said. “This had a large impact on me and my conception of what it means to be a Christian. My pastor has also been a guide for me through my YAV experience, as she held a similar role with the PC(USA) when she was around my age.”

Owuor’s foundation in the PC(USA) began soon after her family moved to the U.S. from Kenya, when her father’s cousin told them to visit a Presbyterian church in Oxford, Ohio, for food and resources. Although the family moved several times before settling in Texas, they never forgot the kindness of that first Presbyterian congregation.

“Because Presbyterians are such amazing people, we would continue to find a Presbyterian church no matter where we moved to,” she said. “When we found Grace Presbyterian Church in Lubbock, we got that same family sense. Everybody knows you. They check up on you. Then, when I stayed in town for college, I got more involved in the church, was confirmed, and later became a ruling elder.”

Owuor said that being an elder changed the way she saw church.

“I got to see what it really takes to have a church functioning — electing people, making decisions for your church,” she said. “It’s different from other denominations. When we have a problem that’s specific to us, we get to decide how to solve it.”

As the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dana Mayfield, and other members of the congregation continued to encourage Owuor in her vocational discernment, she was invited to attend her first Association of Partners in Christian Education annual event. It was there where she met Destini Hodges, coordinator of the YAV program.

“When I went to the book fair to look for resources for our church, Destini was there and she started talking to me,” Owuor recalled. “She showed me a pamphlet with YAV on it and said, ‘You should do this.’ I tried to say no, but you can’t say no to Destini! I knew I had been looking for something new, I just didn’t know what it was.”

Within the YAV program, Owuor was appointed to a brand new pilot program with the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP). The position was created to provide the YAV with missional experiences that would foster direct engagement in the work of anti-poverty ministry.

“After many conversations about the church and its need to invite and integrate young people in its work, both the SDOP and the YAV program leadership felt that this partnership would allow a YAV to be directly engaged in the work of anti-poverty as a way to create greater opportunities for them to learn about this work through exposure to it,” said the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of SDOP. “As a pilot, we thought, what better place than New York City to do this work of creating relationships with a large diversity of communities in a wide variety of contexts. We wanted a YAV to experience the work and glean the wisdom of communities that are self-determining and diligent in addressing the issues of poverty.”

Although daunted at first by her assignment, Owuor said that she didn’t realize how much she had already learned until she put it into practice.

“I got to see real organizations and real people, which served to solidify SDOP’s unique mission, purpose and target audience,” she said. “I saw that we weren’t just throwing money at people — they are getting funding for their people. We’re helping people not to be scared.”

Johnson couldn’t be happier that someone with Owuor’s gifts is helping to launch the SDOP pilot site.

“SDOP is blessed to have Juliet’s energy, intelligence, creativity and imagination as she is doing amazing work in interpreting and living out the ministry of SDOP,” he said. “Juliet brings new insight to this work, which also helps us to examine the ways that SDOP could be nimbler and more attentive to a younger generation that seeks to do the work of justice and healing in our communities. Juliet’s work with us is refreshing, because it is a reminder that the church and our ministries within it will have to be both creative and innovative in finding ways to make space for the gifts and insights of our young people.”

And that’s exactly what the Pentecost Offering has been about for over 25 years.

“You have to invest in your youth,” said Owuor.

And her roommate readily concurs.

“I am so grateful for the support that the church provides to the YAV program,” Collins added. “When donors give generously to the Pentecost Offering, it proves that our church and its members really want to empower young people and bring them into the church. It goes beyond just words and sends a message to young people that there is advocacy work to be done within the church and we would like them to be a part of it.”

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By giving to the Pentecost Offering, your congregation participates in helping our children, youth, and young adults grow up to proclaim with the Psalmist, "O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds."