Given just moments to pack, fleeing refugees must quickly grab the essentials: food, water, clothing, a blanket. Junior high students, meeting for a weeklong program in Anchorage, hurried to fill the facilitator’s demands in a simulation.
“You have just a few minutes now to load on the truck — get on there! It’s crowded so you’ll have to squeeze,” facilitator Mary Ellen Pfeiffer called out in the parking lot of Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage on June 26.
Soon the fictional wheezing truck broke down from its overload of people and belongings.
“You’ll have to pick a person in your family to leave behind,” Pfeiffer told the youth. “Toss out some of your belongings. No time to waste — you’ve only a few minutes to decide.”
The young teens were visibly perplexed at how to make such drastic decisions — how to leave loved ones behind.
On the final night of Just 5 Days, a program devised by the Center for Ministry Development, 21 students and six adult chaperones acted out the plight of refugees.
They had defined that a refugee is a person who has no choice but to flee their homes after natural disasters, violence, war, political oppression and other threats against their lives.
Just 5 Days refers to “what can be accomplished in five days if only we can live justly,” said Matthew Beck, the Anchorage archdiocese’s director of evangelization and discipleship.
This summer was the first run of Just 5 Days in the Anchorage Archdiocese, though Beck led a group who traveled to Glendale, Calif., last summer to attend a Just 5 Days program.
The Center for Ministry Development (CMD) based in Gig Harbor, Washington, works in partnerships with local ministry leaders throughout the country to bring practical, field-tested ministry solutions and resources to parishes. In this case, the program met a gap in spiritual programs geared for Alaska’s middle school students, Beck said.
The program was packed, said Linda Peters, a volunteer youth leader at St. Michael Church in Palmer.
The 21 students slept on classrooms floors at Lumen Christi for the duration. Each day began with music and prayer led by Marcos DeBlanc, a youth minister from Pueblo, Colo. After breakfast, students split into smaller groups for a day of service projects.
At the end of each day, facilitator Pfeiffer, from Molina, Illinois, presented learning and practice programs.
Linda Peters group of eight students put in four days of service at Providence Extended Care, a cluster of housing for the elderly and disabled.
“They spent time individually with people, playing cards, a bowling walk in wheelchairs and worked alongside developmentally disabled people in their jobs placing nuts and bolts in packages,” Peters said.
“We worked alongside them, ate lunch, and became part of their family and they became part of ours,” she added.
Just 5 Days focused on social justice and climate change, also incorporating Pope Francis’ message in “Laudato si.” That 2015 text is an exhortation on the care of the earth and all that means as members of the Body of Christ’s church.
“It calls on all of us to care, to take positive action and especially positive action that respects the poor and the earth,” Beck said. “When creation suffers, it hurts the poor most. They have to depend on the water, plants, clean air.”
“I was left with the impression that there are chances to help others in every place we go,” said Soldotna participant Luke Emerald at the end of Just 5 Days. “And everything we do — we just don’t always really see what’s in front of us.”
The refugee simulation also was impactful, he said.
“I feel as though the Just 5 Days program helped me see what refugees are going through, and that helping them is something I may want to do in the future,” Emerald said.
More immediately, he feels called on to volunteer at food banks and for the homeless.
Seventh grader Jonathan D’Angelo, from Gig Harbor, Washington, said he felt overwhelmed with helplessness, just as he imagined refugees must feel as they seek a new homeland after devastation.
“I felt most badly about the people, how sad they must be to leave them behind: uncles, grandparents…” he said.
One girl grew visibly agitated and tearful at the constant calling out of orders.
“(If the situation were real) you wouldn’t even be able to get mad back, right?” Pfeiffer told her during the group processing afterwards.
Marcos LeBlanc, a prayer and music coordinator from Pueblo, Colo., trained to lead groups by the Center for Ministry Development, said each day “was bookended with prayer and music.”
LeBlanc said Just 5 Days is different from other middle school experiences in that it’s mission and service based, “with a strong focus on our faith leading us to action.”
During the bulk of the day, the youth and their adult leaders volunteered and served the community. After their service they gathered to share with each other what they saw and did.
“We of course close each day with prayer and song, making a great bookend for a day of service,” LeBlanc said.
Mariaha Afuvai, an 8th grader at Anchorage’s Clark Middle School, came away from her experience feeling inspired and better informed about her faith, she said.
“It was a time to have a good attitude toward everything, to understand your feelings toward your faith and to express it to other people,” she said.
One of the more profound experiences was witnessing the power of a peer in prayer.
“This girl prayed the most amazing prayers,” Afuvai recalled. “I really learned how to let it flow and let the Lord’s will be your guide. Throughout the week, the Lord was helping us gain friends and to learn more about each other.”
At the end, “I felt like the Lord was proud of us,” Afuvai said.