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Program’s goal is raising up a generation of leaders: Episcopal Urban Interns inspired to lifelong commitment to social justice

September 13, 2010

Since its founding almost 20 years ago, the Episcopal Urban Internship Program, a Jubilee Ministry in Los Angeles, has brought recent college graduates into some of the toughest neighborhoods in the country and put them to work for a year living in and serving the communities.

This year’s interns held placements helping the homeless find housing, working with HIV patients, helping at a center for homeless teens, working among the unemployed as a jobs counselor, and working with special needs children at a charter school.

“We do provide meaningful service to people in need in Los Angeles. But that’s not really our main goal,” admits the Rev. Jason Cox, director of the program, which this fall will expand from six interns to 15. “Our goal is to raise up a generation of change leaders for the church and the world. To be honest, the agencies where our interns work could provide for their service more efficiently in some other way. But we feel this is worthwhile because our hope and our experience is that by giving young adults this opportunity at this critical juncture in their lives, as they’re entering adulthood, is transformational for them. We hope it inspires a lifelong commitment to service.”

Cox, who is himself an alumnus of the EUIP program, says the percentage of interns who go on to careers in social service or education, or who are ordained, is quite high. A 2007 survey of former interns found more than half in some kind of helping profession, and nearly all reported a long-lasting commitment to social justice issues.

“You could argue that people self-select when the come into this program to begin with – and they do,” Cox said. “But we feel it does make a difference in people’s lives. It gives them a new perspective on the world that we hope they carry with them through life.”

Just as Jubilee Ministry is “rooted in worship,” so too is the year the interns spend together.

“At the beginning of the year, we talk about what it means to be a community, and we ask them to covenant together around basic hopes for the year. We ask them to commit to a weekly gathering where they will share fellowship, food, prayer and reflection,” Cox said. “Then we do a series of retreats over the year where we look at those questions more in-depth.”

One of this year’s interns, Jordan Trumble, a 23-year-old from Tiffin, Ohio, says the faith component was what drew her to apply for an EUIP internship.

“A huge part of my faith is about recognizing the humanity of everyone around me,” said Trumble, who spent the year counseling HIV patients and working at a drop-in center for homeless youth. “This year convinced me more than ever that as a person of faith, that’s my job – to go out into the world and humanize. St Francis said ‘Go forth and preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.’ So I’m trying to transform the world around me.”

Trumble, a 2009 graduate of Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, said her most profound realization was how little it really takes to be a blessing to someone else. “Something that may seem inconsequential to me – like talking to someone for five minutes – may be significant to that person. These youth who live on the streets – people ignore them all the time. They are the outcasts of society. Just taking the time to treat them like human beings is something that often doesn’t happen. My job was a ministry of presence, of just being there, and being available to them.”

Jazmin Zuniga, 23, grew up in south Los Angeles, in a community not vastly different from the Lincoln Heights community where she did her internship, working with special needs children.

“I applied to this program because it would give me the chance to give back to my community,” said Zuniga, who graduated in 2009 from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in psychology and social welfare. “The kids at school couldn’t understand that I was volunteering 1,700 hours of service. They’re flabbergasted at that, at the thought of someone spending time with them voluntarily. But I want to instill those kinds of values in them. I want them to see that if you come out of this community, it’s essential that you don’t forget about it. The more people who come back to the community, the more it will grow for the better.”

Being part of the worshipping community at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hollywood, the host church for the EUIP, has also been important to the interns.

“I had no idea about the Episcopal Church when I came here,” Zuniga said. “I believed in God but I needed to find a community I felt at home with. That happened here at St. Stephen’s. It let me see a different kind of church than I had known before. I was given a chance to build my relationship with God. Throughout the year I’ve been really connected to that church, and I seek prayer from that congregation. I’ve learned that it’s OK to be open about God, to speak about God with my loved ones. It’s been a positive change in me.”

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