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Tracy Frank, Published October 29 2011

World traveler brings cultural lessons home to Casselton

MOORHEAD – Churches United for the Homeless has a new community center director, one who brings a world of experience and passion to the position.

Jen Engquist of Casselton, N.D., recently returned to the area after spending a year in Argentina helping children and organic farmers during a missionary trip through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and INCUPO, a non-government organization in Argentina.

She worked mostly with children in the “taller” (pronounced ta-jer), a safe haven located in a rough city neighborhood where children could spend some time just being kids.

“We had two classrooms where we just tried to create a safe place for kids to come out of their context of violence and the muck and the dirt of poverty and drug use and theft and all of the different components that were so common there,” Engquist says.

They painted pictures, played games, sang songs, and ate snacks. They were encouraged to treat each other well and no name calling was allowed.

“Even preteens, they still want to just come and sing a song and paint,” Engquist says. “During the day, they rob people, sometimes violently, there’s drug use, all of that, but as soon as they came in with us, there was no more name calling, there was no more drug talk, no more persona.”

A child with whom Engquist really connected was Yennifer, a girl who turned nine years old in August and worked begging in the streets seven days a week.

“Letting that fall away and just be a kid, it’s so different to see her go from street tough to the next day singing a song about a small toad,” Engquist says. “It’s very rewarding.”

In addition to giving children the chance to play, Engquist and the others who worked in the “taller” observed them to see where they were educationally, developmentally, and if there were any socioeconomic factors that needed to be addressed.

Sometimes it just required helping a mom who couldn’t read apply for assistance, Engquist said.

“That was a very beautiful job to have, but also very difficult,” she said.

While in Argentina, Engquist also worked in rural areas with subsistence farmers, organic growers, and a native group called the Qom.

She helped try to make sure the farmers had access to market and worked on land reclamation efforts with the Qom.

Engquist, who studied Spanish, international development, and political science in college, says that upon returning from Argentina she feels challenged to apply the lessons she learned there to this area.

“I feel like I’ve come back understanding a deeper commitment to others as my brothers and sisters,” Engquist says.

The first place she went was Churches United for the Homeless.

“I pretty much just walked in and said, ‘Can you use me?’ and I think that I would have happily scrubbed toilets,” Engquist says.

She worked as a shelter advocate and was recently named the shelter’s Community Center Director. The community center is where the hot meals are served and the food pantry and free thrift store are located.

Engquist exudes enthusiasm when she talks about her job.

“Having a job where you’re dedicating your time to caring about people, where that’s allowed, is really life-giving,” she says. “I’ve learned so much from the residents there.”

She is also a youth director at Martin’s Lutheran Church in Casselton.

“Tearing down the walls that separate us from each other, I feel it becomes so much easier to see Christ in others and recognize the Holy Spirit dwelling in the person beside you,” Engquist says. “Life is really beautiful right now.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526