Respect Djunga '25 Looks to His Future as a Collaborative World-Changer on the National and Global Level

The reconciliation studies and community health double-major lived in three African countries before his family fled as refugees to the United States. As Bethel’s fifth Newman Civic Fellow, he’s deconstructing his understanding of racism and poverty—and what it means to be a reconciler.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08 GS’16, contributing writer

June 15, 2023 | 10:30 a.m.

Respect Djunga '25 at the Baltimore Urban Studies Program

Respect Djunga '25

“They’re growing collards!”

Respect Djunga ’25 remembers his reaction to the first community garden he ever saw. It was in Rockford, Illinois, just after his family moved there as refugees when he was in middle school.

They were in a brand-new community, broke and without a car, trying to find jobs and get on their feet using a language they hardly knew. The garden, for their family, was an oasis—a beacon of hope and health, a reminder of home. 


Called to a Christ-guided campus

Djunga was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His family moved to Zimbabwe for a few years, and then South Africa, where he got his first taste of formal education.

“My mother did everything she could to ensure I went to school, even if it meant missing utilities payments or rent,” Djunga explains. “I was taught in school that the reason so many people experienced poverty was that they were lazy. With no understanding of systemic injustice, I found myself believing such lies. I began to convince myself that had my mother graduated from university or worked even harder to find a better job, we wouldn’t have been in our situation.”

He did his best to succeed in school, getting a handle on English—his second language—and pursuing the health studies track at his high school. The school took him to tour colleges, focusing on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). He was set on one in Nashville, until a family friend—LuAnne Grogh, whose sons went to Bethel—brought him for a campus visit. He knew he didn't want a party culture, and loved the idea of professors praying before classes and connecting their faith to their fields. “I just felt called by that,” he said. “I remember stepping foot on campus, and I was in love.”

Learning from professors and peers

He declared a biology major with a pre-medicine focus—the logical continuation of his earlier studies—and would become the first from his family to go to college. But his first year at Bethel, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging and George Floyd had just been murdered. It was a more disconnected and disrupted campus experience than normal, and he felt as though some students were, at best, completely oblivious to the deep tension in the Twin Cities and nationally. At worst, some were overtly dismissive of Djunga’s experience, chalking it up to politics or an extreme social agenda.

He longed to process his transition to college—and, more importantly, what was happening in the world outside of it. He got connected to Bethel’s Black Student Union (BSU)—a subgroup of United Cultures of Bethel (UCB)—and the Cultural Connection Center (CCC), where he found a safe community of students and adult leaders with diverse backgrounds. It was a community, and a physical place, where he could discuss events and emotions in a healthy and structured way. With the stress of being a first-generation college student, in an extremely difficult academic program, in the middle of such a trying season, it became an important outlet for him.

“My vision is no longer obstructed by the anger that I have. Having these spaces to talk and process what we feel—and being welcomed and appreciated by Bethels’ students of color, on the whole—really helped me,” he says. “I’m learning that some of my peers have a totally foreign experience from mine. I’m learning to be more gentle.”

He was also brought up in a household with a formal, strict view of Christianity, where he couldn't talk freely about certain aspects of God or theology and didn’t ask questions. But he was inquisitive and curious and loved to face his curiosity head-on.

Djunga has enjoyed the breadth of academic experiences offered at Bethel and how he’s been able to draw connections between disparate, but interconnected, disciplines. General courses like Christianity & Western Culture (CWC) and Introduction to the Bible gave him a foundational, comprehensive understanding of Scripture—something he’d never had—and an opportunity to explore how faith intersects with what’s happening in the world.

“I’ve learned so many things that I never thought I would learn, but my favorite part about Bethel has been the approach to theology,” Djunga says. “Professor Bernon Lee…wow. That man completely changed biblical interpretation for me.”

“I never knew you could insert your experiences and connect them to spirituality. Learning about justice and social reconciliation work—and the Church’s involvement in that—it’s a hard pill to swallow, but so needed.”

— Respect Djunga ’25

He quotes theologian, author, and national speaker Brenda Salter McNeil, whose writings became favorites from his early coursework. Salter McNeil describes reconciliation as, “an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance, and justice that restores broken relationships and systems to reflect God's original intention for all creation to flourish." 


Drawn to reconciliation

With that framework in mind, Djunga began unpacking his childhood and some of the disparities he experienced, first in Africa and then in Illinois. It led him to a deep low of confusion and uncertainty about his abilities, calling, and options. He reached out to his advisor, Claudia May, who is also the executive director of the Center for Community Engaged Learning. She helped Djunga process what he was feeling and learning, and think through how his academic goals may be changing as a result. They talked through Bethel’s majors, study abroad opportunities, and local community partnerships—and began to craft a plan for his remaining time as a student. “As an academic advisor, I try to listen deeply and journey alongside students as they learn how to nurture their aspirations,” May says. “I try to co-create a learning experience that allows students to be honest about the trials they confront without succumbing to shame or self-condemnation. It is an honor to see students consider themselves as innovators and contributors to the learning community experience.”

“It is rare to come across a student who exemplifies such excellent leadership qualities, empathy for others, and an exquisite intellectual ability to ask deep and probing questions of himself and others, while maintaining a curiosity that is not shrouded by pessimism. Respect Djunga is such a student.”

— Claudia May

“I have seen him broaden his understanding of how to appreciate those whom he encounters. He is an astute critical thinker who possesses a sharp intellect,” May adds. “Cultural, spiritual, and intellectual humility permeate his observations and underscore his insights. Numerous times during our class discussions, Respect has mustered the courage to share personal testimonies that illuminate a theme we are exploring.”

As a result of their conversations, Djunga declared a major in reconciliation studies and decided to spend summer 2022 working full-time with the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance. It’s a collaboration of community gardens and local gardeners promoting “reconciliation, healing, peace, social and environmental justice through the cultivation and sharing of food in the Summit-University (Rondo) and Frogtown communities of St. Paul,” the organization’s website reads.

During that experience, Djunga first heard the term “redlining,” the discriminatory lending and financial practices that led to huge, generational disparities in home ownership, debt, and poverty among different ethnic communities. Djunga’s wheels started turning even more.

What if poverty was systemic, and racism—not laziness—kept some communities from improving their status? What if heart disease and diabetes had less to do with a simple predisposition of communities of color toward those illnesses and more to do with a lack of access to healthy food and education? And if these things were true, what was the Church’s role in addressing those patterns, bringing the world more in line with what God intended?

“Put a grocery store in a community and give people healthier options, and it’ll make a difference!” he realized. Djunga credits his time in Baltimore and his studies at Bethel for helping him understand the nuances of his unique life experiences, and also create a future career path. “The reconciliation studies major has helped me find a voice I never knew I had, giving me the words to articulate the suffering my family and I had experienced throughout our lives as refugees in America. It has also given me the ability to understand and sympathize with people I once looked at as irredeemable. It has helped me appreciate the intricate yet uniting story of humanity.”

Respect Djunga '25 at the Baltimore Urban Studies Program

Respect Djunga '25 at the Baltimore Urban Studies Program

In spring 2023, as a component of the reconciliation studies major, Djunga took part in the Baltimore Urban Studies program, which included a public health internship through Helping Up Mission and ongoing networking with a national, multi-ethnic group of students committed to understanding and promoting public health equity. Living on Chase Street in the center of the city, Djunga began to notice some of the same patterns and stark contrasts in living conditions.

On one side of the street, there would be abandoned row homes. On the other would be well-groomed yards and beautiful houses. As the group did outreach among those experiencing homelessness on the streets of Baltimore, they noticed how many had undiagnosed mental illnesses or other underlying conditions, and how few resources were available to them. These differences, he began to realize with more and more certainty, were not accidental or anecdotal, but systemic and longstanding.

“Many of us were coming from campuses where we don’t get to see a lot of these realities. Here we got to see what historical, systemic racism and injustice looks like, and–on a very grand scale–the effects of redlining, food inequities, racism, and how people end up being displaced,” Djunga says. “You see that in Rondo-Frogtown as well, and honestly, even at Bethel. Campus is this beautiful place! Every time I’m there, I forget that there’s another world outside and that, just minutes down the road, there are people living in extreme poverty.”

When he returned to Illinois in May, Djunga immediately added a major in community health and committed to another summer with the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance. He also began considering his role in addressing another issue: the school-to-prison pipeline. He recalled how when he was younger, he got in a lot of fights. His teachers’ answer was detention and suspension—with very little time or interest in supporting him in changing the cycle.

“While others were in class, getting taught by professionals, I was at home trying to figure it all out by myself, in a foreign language,” he says. “And because we got SNAP Benefits and my meals were also provided by the school, I was deprived of healthy, consistent food, too.”

While it’s a common story in communities like the one he grew up in, Djunga was able to notice the pattern, and it created a resolve in him. He decided that if he was going to get an education and make the most of his life, he needed to stop getting in trouble—even if the system was stacked against him. Thinking of his younger brother, who’s facing this pattern today, Djunga secured an internship at the Dispute Resolution Center in St. Paul for the fall. He hopes to learn about restorative justice and find a way to incorporate it into the school district in Rockford.


Pursuing public leadership

Because of his insatiable curiosity and commitment to community-building, Djunga has been chosen as a Newman Civic Fellow for 2023-2024. He’ll be part of a network of about 120 students nominated by their college presidents for their “potential for public leadership and their work with communities.” The national cohort will connect virtually and in person for professional development, mentoring–and recognition. They’ll also have access to exclusive scholarships and career opportunities. Djunga is the fifth Bethel student to be honored as a fellow, joining the ranks of Tazrae Song’Ony ’19, Hilda Davis ’20, Elizabeth Carson ’22, and Kailani Vang ’23.

“For Bethel students, the Newman Civic Fellowship award provides them opportunities to dialogue with their peers from around the country on pertinent issues of our day and forge meaningful connections with diverse populations, beliefs, and convictions,” says May. “[Bethel’s Newman Fellows] learn how to celebrate difference while acknowledging the gifts of diversity in our multicultural and multiethnic world. They garner practices on how to redress injustice, inequities, and social disparities in our world while appreciating that agents for change come from all walks of life and social backgrounds.”

As Djunga continues to build his network in the Twin Cities and beyond, he’s bringing into focus his role in restoring broken relationships and larger systems, and how he’ll utilize his majors to do it. Community health, he says, is a vital component of that work, and the majors are complementary. Sometimes, the answer to a systemic issue is paralyzingly complex. But sometimes, it can start with something as simple as planting a strategically-placed garden—with plenty of collard greens.

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