I’m not sure about you, but I walked around the last few days with part of my heart outside my body in a different place with 30,000 people. That place was Detroit, MI, as I watched through social media and livestream the energy and events of the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering. In 2009 while I was at Pacific Lutheran University loving my college life, I was asked to be one of the adult (I know, right?) chaperons to our home-church’s first journey to an ELCA Youth Gathering. The one in 2009 was in New Orleans, which was especially poignant with Hurricane Katrina coming through in 2005, and relief efforts were still occurring. I was crazy enough to say “Yes” and off we went – I think it was four chaperons and 15-20 youth. We had a connection in Houston. We arrived in New Orleans.
It was nuts. Welcome to 37,000 Lutheran youth stuffed into a concentrated few city blocks, for five days. We bought out all the Subway bread in like a day. We poured thousands upon thousands of service hours onto the city – made possible by the servants who were already there, helping neighbors, helping families, and helping communities recover. We drove by cemeteries full of only headstones above ground that demonstrated their necessity – because in the South they risk rushing hurricane-force floods that can unearth corpses. We helped a community stuff the backpacks of their tiny neighbors who would go back to school in a few weeks to a school with still no roof because it had blown off in the hurricane a few years earlier.
In the large-scale evening programming in the Superdome, we heard from Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber who many of the kids’ parents didn’t want her to speak, and yet she came, all
of her, with her tattoos, swearing-like-a-truck-driver mouth, a history of alcohol abuse, and a passionate heart for God’s work, and shared, “That’s what it looks like to be a Lutheran.” We heard a letter from the President of the USA, Barack Obama, read out loud to these Lutherans, that articulated his gratitude for these Lutheran young folks, and all they do to serve, help, and share with those in need, in this city, in this time.
There are things I won’t forget and feelings I can’t shake from those five days.
Your younger congregational members just got off the plane. Yes, they’re your youth, but you can’t stick them back in the youth room. The things they saw in Detroit, they talked with locals who served them more than they served the locals in Detroit, they felt the sense of “aliveness” in Detroit; that can’t be contained to one room.
I ask you, don’t ask, How was the youth gathering? (because that’s just about as productive as “How was work?” or “How was school?”)
Instead, focus on engaging stories (here’s an example) rather than asking a blanket question. Settle into the space that only comes when you accept that the one before you is just as much a Child of God as you, and wonder:
Start it off with, “It’s so good to see you! Hey I have a question…” –
a. Tell me a story of when you helped someone during the gathering.
b. Tell me a story of when you knew you had something to say about God, whether you said it at the time or didn’t.
c. Tell me a story of when you gave all you have and all you are in Detroit.
d. Tell me a story of how God came into focus for you at the gathering.
e. Tell me a story of when you knew you had something to contribute.
f. Tell me a story of someone who changed your mind.
g. Tell me a story of when you knew you mattered, and the gathering wouldn’t have been the same without you.
Now the last prompt requires you to trust them, and also that they trust you. If it’s there, great. If it’s not, make it a goal to demonstrate consistent trustworthiness, so that in time, they might answer this truthfully. But for now I ask you to wonder these things with those who came back from Detroit, from the youngest to the oldest – chaperons and coordinators included!
The truth is, these young adults were changed by seeing all the 30,000 ways to be Lutheran.
If we truly believe in an ever-present, transformational God, than God is up to God’s creative messy, molding work all the time. It’s okay to feel terrified and awe-inspired by this. I know I am. Maybe you were changed while they were gone? I guess the storytelling goes both ways. Know they’re changed, and you’re changed, and the knowledge and articulation of that change happens now, happens next week, happens next year, and/or in decades to come. Be patient. But don’t take advantage of patience – their energy and love for this new world is waiting to be poured out, to the people they love most. You.
So, see what happens; don’t ask them how it was, ask them to tell their story – because no one will tell it like they will.
Also check out Connect with Youth After the Gathering.