It was worth it.
Every drop of sweat.
Every late night.
Every early morning.
Every long line.
Every ounce of sunscreen.
It was all worth it.
Before leaving for the ELCA National Youth Gathering, I wondered on my blog about the cost of it all. Is the $1,000+ for each person a faithful use of the resources God has given us? I had decided that it was worth it, in part, because we who belong to small congregations need to feel how alive, enormous, and vital the Church is today. And while I know our kids will grow into adulthood and tell the story of growing up in a small ELCA congregation, I decided that the investment of all these dollars is faithful because at the Youth Gathering, they will learn to tell the story of growing up in a Church that serves and loves God and others in loud, brave, bright ways that change the world.
Because the youth group at Emmanuel, High Point is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, we attended the pre-Gathering event called MYLE (Multi-cultural Youth Leadership Event) that ran the three days prior to The Gathering the 31,000 attended. MYLE is smaller, maybe 700 of us, on the campus of the University of Houston for a few days of intentional unity, praise, play, and service. If I’m honest, it’s a few days where my kids of color aren’t (pretty much) the only people of color at an ELCA event. We are the “whitest” denomination in America. I don’t like writing that sentence; I can’t take pride in that. But, we need to say it out loud, and we really need to face it. And work to change it, to embody the kingdom.
Though our church body has work to do, I am proud to be a pastor in the ELCA. Part of that pride comes from getting to see the ways we are acknowledging our lack of diversity, confessing the sin of clinging to our own kind, and taking a seat while non-white people, some of whom speak many languages, take the lead. MYLE is one of those ways.
At MYLE, our Puerto Rican sisters and brothers brought vibrance and resilience to any room they entered. The Glocal Band made up of talented musicians from many lands and languages invited us in and showed us the way as we sang of God’s love in Swahili, Korean, Spanish, English, Kannada, and other tongues!
Each day, speakers would challenge us to imagine the world through the eyes of “the other.” And every speaker pointed to Christ as our freedom and unity, helping us see where we still have boundaries that need erasing. It seemed that each of my teenagers tucked in their pockets the words of different speakers because when we gathered at the close of each day to talk and pray together, each person had brought home different words and images from that day’s experience. Each one found courage for the task of self-examination and growth; some from a lyric, some from a speaker’s refrain, some on a service project, some in a small group.
One night, very late, there was this moment. I’ll let you eavesdrop on my precious group for a bit:
Teen 1: I saw lots of Wakanda Forever shirts today.
Teen 2: Wakanda Forever! (crosses arms over chest)
Teen 3: It’s whatever.
(We all kind of pause because something has changed in the room.)
Me: What’s up?
Teen 3 (born in Africa): It took a movie for everyone to figure out that Africa is beautiful and strong? It’s like, “Okay, we’ve been over there being beautiful and strong, and you looked past us. Now, there’s a movie, so you are looking at us?”
Teen 4: (slowly and quietly) That never occurred to me before.
Right there, at nearly midnight, in a small, gray dorm room with nine people perched on desks, beds, and chairs, sweaty from a very long Houston summer day, snacks and drinks everywhere…a boundary was erased. Okay, maybe it was simply seen for the very first time, but it was crystal clear that the heart of the one who saw something for the first time was looking around for his eraser. And the young woman who showed him the boundary felt seen.
It’s really all we can hope for! It’s the finest of Christian formation when something painful bubbles from one heart and is seen and heard as true by another…and confession falls from the lips of those who see and hear the pain…and hearts are changed…and lives are stitched together. And when all of that happens when the very next thing is the prayer prayed together at the close of the day, it is the holiest of moments, and the messy, smelly dorm room is the holiest of temples.
I have described MYLE as being spiritually expensive. Spending time attending to racial identity and reconciliation costs a lot of energy that is not easily replaced with a nap or a cup of coffee. The cost hangs around a while. MYLE was so packed with gorgeous, serious, funny, musical, brave, deep, and silly moments that by the time Wednesday came, and 30,000 of our closest friends were arriving for The Gathering, we were pretty tired. But, God had plans for our tired bodies and spirits, so we took naps, drank coffee, and pressed toward the stadium…where we received an I.V. infusion of the joy of 31,000 people who had been waiting for this holy party for three long years!
Now, I suppose I could write endlessly about The Gathering because the planners crafted a masterpiece of a Gathering. Each day was full of opportunities for worship, service, learning, play, music, and unity. And I’m sure some other blogger has written well about all of that.
So, let me tell you some of the words the speakers said that were like Velcro to my youth group, the words they brought back to the hotel with them for our late-night conversation and prayer. Each speaker had 10 minutes, and their speeches were packed with Christian hope, love, and light, but these are some of the words which have clung to the young people I love. I do hope I’m paraphrasing faithfully:
“We don’t have a hunger problem; we have a greed problem. There is enough.” Maria Rose Belding
“YOU are defiant hope in a broken world.” The Rev. Dr. Stephen Bouman
“You have a reason and purpose.” “Show up!” Joe Davis
“There’s grace for that.” Pr. Will Starkweather
“Your current situation is not your ultimate situation.” Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber
“We are hope for the world. People need us!” Rebekah Bruesehoff
“I felt like the world was trying to break me, but one day my heart started to change.” Michaela Shelly
“If you can still feel, you have the strength to carve yourself into a new tomorrow.” Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton
“Am I willing to live for this?” Savanna Sullivan
Is there another setting where you can bring your youth group to hear people of varying ages, male, female, every-possible-shade-of-skin, immigrant, citizen, LGBTQIA, ordained pastors, poets, musicians, a terminally ill teen, and people recovering from addiction, eating disorders, and self-harm speak honestly about what they’ve been through…and point to Christ as their source of strength and healing, saying as plainly as possible that God’s call, hope, grace, and love change everything?
If you know another place to find all that, then you know of a rare and precious gem. Please tell us all where to find such a gift.
As for me and mine, we’ll start fundraising right away for our trip to Minneapolis in 2021. And in the meantime, we will continue to bear witness to God’s love and point to the cross of Christ – which changes everything!