Marilyn Bell Hawley (center) with her Duke Lutheran “daughter,” Jovita Byemerwa (the graduate!).
The congregation of St. Paul’s, Durham has been changed forever, thanks to Duke University Lutherans and our “Adopt-a-Lutheran Program.”
We began participating in the program early in its inception. The effort to link Lutheran students at Duke University who desired “family ties” while they were away from home to church members, felt like an extension of our congregation’s mission to share God in Christ with the world and one another through service, support, and learning.
Remembering my own time as a college student away from home in eastern NC, I was very blessed to have been positively embraced by the Interdenominational College Ministry, as it was called at my university. The positive experience I had as a college student back then inspired me to want to create a similar experience for the Duke students. The experience of connecting with persons from different cultures and all walks of life, and genuinely sharing our similarities and differences was not only enlightening but it affirmed my belief that all of us are far more alike than different…which is so reassuring on my Christian journey!
Our Duke Lutheran “daughter,” Jovita Byemerwa from Tanzania, was accepted into our family and has added so much joy to our lives.
Upon our initial meeting, we felt a connection and immediately began spending time together by inviting her to events at St. Paul’s and to our home. She met our friends and family and spent Thanksgiving with us. She always knew we would have her favorite meal whenever she visited.
During the pandemic’s early stages of isolation, we made an extra effort to reach out to her with encouragement and support. We shared her concerns for her own family back home and mourned the loss of her family members along with her.
When she would return to Durham after occasional visits home to Tanzania, she loved to share stories about her time with her grandparents, details of her brother’s wedding, and her new nephews. I imagined what her mother was like when she would tell me about growing up as the only daughter in a house full of sons. I reflected on my own children, their time away from home, and the blessing of the “adopted” families and friends who nurtured and accepted them.
Like all college students, Jovita was not without the challenges of student life. She often shared those challenges with me, not only regarding her experiences at Duke, but as an African woman in America and the realities of our culture. Jovita’s demonstrated and consistent faith throughout her time as a student has been an inspiration to me. Her tenacity and determination have strengthened my own.
I know I am a better person because she is in my life, all thanks to the Adopt-A-Lutheran program.
When Jovita graduated from Duke this past spring, I was as proud of her and her journey as I was years ago at my own children’s college graduations! That same feeling of pride and sheer gratitude for her hard work and her efforts to reach her goals was so gratifying!
The additional highlight of our role as her adopted family was the honor we felt to host her family who traveled from Tanzania to witness her graduation! It was a full circle moment, as her parents and siblings expressed their gratitude to us for having supported Jovita during her time in school. The experience was as much of a gift to us as it was to them.
—Written by Marilyn Bell Hawley, St. Paul’s, Durham
The Adopt-a-Duke Lutheran program was created in 2018 to care for and support students during their time away from home and family. The Duke Lutherans campus pastor is Amanda Highben.