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Interview: Youth pastor Hannah Dunne

Flagstaff Team

Open door… Youth pastor Hannah Dunne runs a Friday-night programme for teens and intermediate-age children, and another on Sundays when she’ll often be found flipping pancakes.

With a desire to help others, Hannah Dunne did missionary work in Cambodia and Nepal, before taking a role providing support and a safe space for Devonport teens. She talks to Helen Vause about what young people are seeking:

Life-changing missions helped set youth pastor’s path

Christian missions in Asia were part of Hannah Dunne’s journey to a role working with youth in Devonport.

Dunne, the youth pastor at Holy Trinity Church, was raised and homeschooled in Warkworth. On the brink of adulthood, she had a strong hankering for helping others.

Not too sure where it would take her at first, Dunne set out on her own route to working with youth, starting with a training course run by global Christian movement Youth With A Mission (YWAM).

YWAM is an evangelical interdenominational missionary organisation that has been around for more than 50 years. It has a long track record with projects in developing countries that have poverty, disease and a need for substantial support.

The organisation sends young workers on missions where they’re involved in a wide range of activities, helping with agriculture, construction, healthcare, kids’ programmes, education, small enterprises and generally supporting people to help themselves.

After a couple of months of preparations and study, Dunne was off on her first youth mission, to Cambodia. She worked for a month alongside a ministry, Sak Saum, that supports and aids people who have been exploited and abused. Sak Saum was founded by an American woman about 15 years ago as a Christian ministry with a plan for “the rescue, restoration, transformation and rehabilitation of men and women”.

It aims to create self-sustaining industry. Through its business operations, many women have learned to sew garments and bags to sell to the world, assuring them of steady employment.

“It was an incredible experience and privilege to be there with these people, helping to get women off the streets and into the Sak Saum operation; to learn how you can help and to see people moving from despair to hope and a new life,” says Dunne.

From Cambodia, she went to Nepal on her second youth mission experience, hiking for about eight hours to a very tiny, remote village.

There the young missionaries were house guests who not only paid for their keep but sang for their supper. The purpose of their visit was for cultural exchange and support of the local population, as well as being a way of providing income for people by paying them for lodgings.

“It was an unforgettable time,” says Dunne. “We were showering under waterfalls and sharing song and performance with them, finding common ground. But we were also there as part of the education of these people about the dangers of human trafficking that are never far away from them. They had a history of very plausible visitors coming and promising education and success for their children, who would then simply disappear into the terrible world of human trafficking.”

Dunne felt the chance to be part of these international missions matched her passions and her talents.

“The overseas missions were life-changing for me,” says Dunne, who looks back on them as an exciting time of self-development and change in her own life.

Back at home, Dunne found an unpaid internship in Mahurangi as a youth pastor.

“I wanted to give local youth the very special opportunity of an overseas mission and I started planning to take half a dozen year 11 and 12 kids to Kiribati. We did a lot of fundraising to get ourselves there with car washes and fundraising dinners. Just doing all of that and making it all happen was great experience for them.”

“We were only there for 10 days. But it made quite an impression on my group, just meeting kids of their ages from another culture and seeing how other people lived. It really opened their eyes. You could see them growing from the experience.”

Once she was into her 20s, Dunne realised that by staying on the path of helping youth she could struggle financially. She trained as a nanny to give herself another part-time employment option.

When her name was put forward last year to be the youth pastor at Holy Trinity in Devonport, she jumped at the chance.

Youth pastors are not common across Auckland, though Dunne’s brother is in a similar role in Glenfield, and Holy Trinity has a recognised history of youth pastors and providing a safe space for local teens.

Every Friday night, Dunne runs a programme for local teens and intermediate-age kids who come to hang out and take up the various activities Dunne provides.

Often she’ll have cooked something, providing dinner for up to 20 young people.

“The things youth crave these days – and often don’t get – are a sense of belonging, a community and emotional safety.

Typically, there is a bit of music, maybe with Dunne on drums. There’s chat, maybe discussions on a theme and time to play games or just chill.

For her Sunday morning programme, she’ll be in the hall again with her little cooker, flipping pancakes for all.

In the holidays they’ll all pack up and go off to youth camps.

“It’s not really about numbers that come, it’s also about working well with the kids who do come,” says Dunne.

She says local teens have lots to choose from, including going to parties. She knows her groups may not be where the cool kids hang out, but they work for those who come.

“The things youth crave these days – and often don’t get – are a sense of belonging, a community and emotional safety.

“School isn’t necessarily a community for them, and it may not feel safe emotionally to them. For lots of people now the world is a very lonely society and for many there isn’t the warmth of an extended family or great neighbourly relationships.

“Yes they may be connected through their phones and social media. But what sort of relationships does this bring? They may be far from safe. They bring comparisons and pressure, and for some kids a massive dose of FOMO (fear of missing out) because they can see what the cool kids are up to.”

She says her mission is to help young people build relationships and help them understand what rich relationships with others look like.

“We have rules here. Like there can be no mocking each other, no bad banter, no jokes at someone else’s expense. Often they don’t get that at first, and say it’s just the way teens are. But I’m firm on that. It can feel sometimes like pushing water uphill. But I can see change in them.

“It’s not new that our society has a problem with our young people,” she says. “Our youth are not really flourishing. And the consequences are bad – depression, anxiety and youth suicide.”

She says it is important that young people have safe spaces where they can be vulnerable and have people they trust to talk to.

“But it has to feel authentic to them – kids can spot anything phoney right away.

“When they grow out of this and leave here, it is my goal that they will have built strong relationships, that they know some other people really well.”

Drumming up support… Hannah Dunne says adults in the Devonport community could engage more with youth.

It’s a full life for Dunne and she’d love a few helping hands. “Adults in our community could be engaging with our youth a lot more than they are. We’d really welcome any adults who’d like to be involved.”

Dunne says she’s committed to working with youth for the long haul. When it feels like there isn’t enough of her energy to go around, she’s often out running around Devonport, staying fit so she can keep up the pace.

This article originally appeared in the May 17 edition of The Devonport Flagstaff. Download PDF.