Kristian Aardahl, who graduated from Concordia in May of 2017 with a biology degree, has been serving in Senegal since August with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Young Adults in Global Mission.
While in Senegal, Aardahl is working at a pharmacy and resource center for individuals with HIV/AIDS through a Lutheran, Senegalese non-profit organization. His responsibilities so far have included weighing orphans and adult women, keeping records, taking inventors, stocking the pharmacy with medications for the surrounding villages, and helping lead events for children and support groups. He also attends church every week, and leads a class through the church.
“Having the chance now to learn about a specific country and the great diversity of culture and people here in Senegal is awesome and something I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” Aardahl said.
Leading up to his graduation from Concordia, Aardahl felt he wanted to go some place new, outside of the Midwest. What stood out most to Aardahl about Senegal is its 95 percent Muslim population and the strong interfaith relationships and discourse between the Muslim and Christian communities there.
“The opportunity to learn more about Islam fascinated me, as there is a lot of negative media coverage of Islam in the United States that is not representative of the religion,” he said.
Aardahl is joined in YAGM by 92 other young adults, ranging in age from 21 to 29, sent to 11 country programs around the world. While in-country, the volunteers live alongside host communities, with roles within the community that vary from leading Bible studies to working on family farms.
“The focus is to build relationships and mutual understanding of beliefs, peoples, and cultures through time together, rather than to change the locals’ spiritual practices,” Aardahl said.
Another figure on Concordia’s campus who has been deeply affected and changed through work with YAGM is Deacon Jon Leiseth, Concordia’s Minister for Faith and Spirituality in Action, who served for four years with his wife and children through YAGM’s Southern Africa program.
When they were calledl to serve abroad, Leiseth and his wife were both working at Concordia.
“My wife started to have some… I’ll call it holy restlessness. She felt called to be a part of the global church and global service,” Leiseth explained. “Part of that was very much nourished by the ways in which Concordia shows up to being part of a global community. So, she got that itch partly because of Concordia.”
Service was a major component of Aardahl’s time at Concordia. He participated in two Justice Journeys and a May Seminar to Tanzania with the biology department while at Concordia. In Tanzania, his group stayed at the MaaSae Girls Secondary School for four days, spending time with the girls and working on science projects.
“I enjoyed seeing the girls’ excitement for learning and willingness to share their lives with us in a place new to me,” he said.
Aardahl was also an active member of Campus Ministry Commission while at Concordia, and last school year, he was one of the leaders for Outreach, an ongoing service relationship between a group of Concordia students and a social service organization within the community. Leiseth believes that Aardahl’s work with these organizations prepared him well for his work with YAGM.
“Through Outreach, and through conversations with Kristian, it became very clear to me that Kristian very much embodies the ELCA’s model of accompaniment, including mutuality — mutuality is one of the five values. I deeply respect Kristian’s curiosity about his neighbor. I deeply respect Kristian’s respect for his fellow human beings. Kristian is a great listener,” he said.
Leiseth offered up some words and advice to anyone who also feels called to global mission.
“One consideration that I would suggest for anyone involved in ‘service’ is to reflect on one’s motivations to serve. Where does that come from, and what does it mean?” he said.
One thing Leiseth deeply appreciates about the ELCA and its attempt to combat the ‘white saviour complex’ is its model of accompaniment, in which service is not simply about aid, but is instead about journeying in solidarity.
“We greatly benefit from walking alongside one another through life,” he said.
Aardahl expressed that, even after such a short period of time, he feels he is being stretched by his experiences abroad.
“My host family has welcomed me into their family complete with a Senegalese name – Pape Samba Sy — and let me help with errands and cooking. Many of my coworkers and family members in town have invited me into their homes to share a meal and tea. On Sundays when I go to church my host mother asks me to pray for her,” said Aardahl. “I continue to be amazed by the hospitality and love I have received during the short time I’ve been in Senegal. It’s a great experience.”
If students are interested in YAGM or other service opportunities, there will be an opportunity to hear from a Concordia and YAGM alum, as well as four representatives from the various ELCA service organizations, at an informal pizza dinner held on Sunday, Nov. 5 at 6pm in Jones C/D.