The Youth Gathering
My last blog post focused on the Gathering, and as promised, here are my thoughts:
To begin, it was so much more than I expected in all good and wonderful ways. Perhaps the best attempts at relay the experience to you is to outline the week and then focus on highlights. Hillary’s church, St. Mark’s, traveled with Bethlehem and Alma.
Day One: The trip started early Monday morning. We boarded the motor coach and drove south to Oklahoma City. The evening’s activities included dinner and ice cream in Bricktown, followed by self-touring the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. By far, the highlight, albeit humbling, was the memorial. Typically, I feel, at memorials of horrific tragedy, onlookers are called to mourn and remember our affected sisters and brothers–both the victims, but also their families and the community. While this memorial certainly does this, and it is an important thing to be done, the OKC Memorial also shares so many stories of the community and the nation coming together to support one another. It reminded me of a phoenix being reborn out of ashes. One example of this is The Fence.
There is a chain link fence the stretches out on one of the outside walls of the memorial. On this fence, thousands of people leave memories: prayers, written notes from loved ones to those lost more than 20 years ago, shirts or souvenirs showing who has visited, and more. What is interesting about this is that was never then intention of the fence. It was a barricade for the rubble left. Almost immediately, the public began leaving tokens. The fence became a symbol of hope, leading to the memorial designers to incorporate it into the plans. Now, 200 feet of the original fence are included. Over the last 20 years, more than 60,000 items have been left. As the fence fills up, the items are archived overtime and kept in storage. This part of the memorial spoke to me of the compassion, love, and communal potential humanity has. Through this tragedy, people continue to love and support one another. Visiting the memorial was a heavy way to spend our first night of the trip, but I am thankful for the opportunity for myself, but also the 40+ high school students who also got to experience it.
Day Two: We continued our drive through Oklahoma, into Texas, through Dallas, stopped for lunch in Huntsville, and finally arrived in Houston. We visited a pier on our first night there. We all enjoyed riding the rides and seeing the Gulf. Dinner was at a Hibachi & Sushi place. While the food and entertainment was very good, the service left something to be desired. Our reservation was for 6:00, we got their around 5:45, and weren’t seated until after 6:10. We were one of only three other tables (granted a large group of 13). On top of that, out orders were not taken until 15 or so minutes later, and our chef did not start cooking until well after 7:00. Despite the unneeded delays, it was still a fun experience for many of the kids who had not been to such a place before. Also, someone from the church anonymously covered the bill for the evening. For the food and their kindness, we give thanks.
Day Three: This was the first actual day for the Gathering, with events starting in the evening and the kick-off of Mass Gathering. The plan for the day was sort of up-in-the-air, as the other two churches had to report to Mass Gathering practice. They were part of the Mass Cast, which is similar to a flash mob. The morning was set with a trip to NASA, but the Mass Cast practice was at 1:00, but the actual event didn’t start until much later, and we didn’t need to get in line and wait until about 4:00. What that meant for the kiddos from Valley is there was roughly three hours to fill in Houston. Before I get to that, I’ll talk a bit about the Johnson Space Center, or NASA. Here we toured the space shuttle and the jet that transported it, went to many interactive exhibits, and took a tram tour of the campus and astronaut training facility. The highlight for me was the shuttle and plane tour. It may have been because it was the first thing we did, and the only exhibit without hundreds of other people around us. It also may have been the absolute sheer size of the crafts and the amazing scientific engineering that made them reality. The interactive exhibits were okay and aimed towards children. Finally, the tram tour, which were most excited for, began with an over 120 minute wait in line. Not worth it. perhaps on a less busy day I would do it again, but it was an experience I could have had while watching a YouTube video. Granted, there is something to say in actually being in the same building where the astronauts train.
Following NASA, our group made the call to go to a small beach in a neighborhood of Houston. Miraculously, the motor coach made the tight turns and carried us to El Jardin beach. The beach and water certainly rejuvenated our spirits, and I think helped improve the entire week. After the frustration of lines at NASA and the dinner from the night before, we thought the whole week was just going to be standing in the hot sun, waiting for something to happen. At the beach, we were mostly to ourselves. We ran, jumped, and splashed in the water. The energy we had stored on the bus ride and waiting in line burst forth from us as the water washed away any hesitations we had about the trip. After pruning our fingers and sun-burning our faces, we hopped back to the bus and headed to NRG Stadium for the first night of Mass Gathering. Here 31,000 Lutheran youth and adult leaders gathered to worship and listen to engaging speakers. On this night, the speakers all presented on different ways in which God’s Call Changes Everything. Speakers included Tuhina Rasche (ELCA Pastor), Ginny Owens (Musician), Deborah D.E.E.P. Moutan (Poet), and Bryan Stevenson (Public Interest Lawyer). My personal favorite was Pr. Tuhina speaking of God calling her from the life of a practicing Hindu to the call of Ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA and where she exists in her unique space.
Day Four: Our first cycle day of the Gathering was our Service day, we set off from the hotel at 7:00 AM and made our way to Hermann Park, a 100+ year-old park nestled in the city of Houston. Our kids, together with about 200 others, spent the morning raking Texas Pink Granite off the grass and back onto the pathways. We also picked up trash and helped refresh the space. Our kids enjoyed the experience tremendously, and I am not surprised. The youth of St. Marks have also gravitated towards service learning, so this was right up their alley. We all also received some good advice from our service learning coordinator at the park: You get paid to volunteer and serve. No, it’s not with cash-in-hand at the end of the day, but its in relationships, networking, scholarships, and experience. For high school students and young adults, service is one of the best and surest ways to earn interviews and job offers in the public service industry as well as scholarships to put towards education. Now, stewardship and service is important and should be done regardless of what we get for it, since it should be done because of what God has already done, but it is also true that volunteering has social, personal benefits. I appreciate this lesson being shared with our youth.
Following Service Learning, we went to NRG Arena for a celebration of service. What we expected was a reflective worship service–something calm, serene, and introspective. What we got was a rave, tailgate games, prayer walks, arts and crafts, gaga ball, four square, food trucks, a concert, and projected video game sessions, and that is just a short list of what I saw. Essentially, there was hopefully something for everyone. However, it was a tad overwhelming for me, so I am sure others were also awestruck by just how much there was to do. I and few other youth spent a good majority of time at the gaga pit, where I got the nickname Bear (which is actually my brother’s nickname interestingly enough) and made it to the top 3 in many games I played, winning one. (someone has to teach the youth how to play gaga well).
MASS Gathering this evening focused on God’s Love Changes Everything. Speakers included Caroline Meeker (Student, Wish Granter), Rev. Aaron Fuller (Navy Chaplain), and Marlon Hall (Anthropologist). Marlon Hall’s presentation was the most moving for me. His intentional language and the rhythm and soul of his word choice helped inspire and encourage the audience to recognize the power of God’s love and how it changes us to love, too.
Day Five: Our activity for this day was the Interactive Learning Center. Here, the youth were able to walk around the NRG center and explore hundreds of different organizations, ministries, and opportunities within the ELCA. I think this was an AMAZING IDEA. For everyone, especially youth (tomorrow’s church), to see all the different ways in which one’s faith can be manifest in daily work and life is foundational in faith formation. All the different things we talk about are theoretical until actually applied to practical application, and, in my opinion, the Interactive Learning Center did exactly that. Since I only experienced a very small aspect of the NRG Center, I encourage you to check out this link to learn more if you’re interested!
We went to the beach again, this time to Galveston. The waves here were much bigger and much saltier. To save a bit of time, I’ll say I personally preferred El Jardin more.
Mass Gathering on this evening focused on God’s Grace Changes Everything. Speakers included Elizabeth Peter (Seminarian @ ULS!!!), Will Starkweather (ELCA Pastor), Michaela Shelley (Student living w/ Mitochondrial Disease & Blogger), Jasmine Segarra (Student), and Nadia Bolz-Weber (ELCA Pastor). My highlights of day five are both quotes from the speakers. One is from Nadia:
Self-righteousness feels good for a minute like peeing your pants feels warm for a minute. And then its cold and smells.
And the other from Will:
There’s GRACE for that.
Day Six: This was the last full day of the Gathering, and it was Synod Day for Nebraska. At Synod day, all the youth of that synod got together for worship, faith formation, and general announcements of what is happening. (If you’re wondering, synod is the organizational term used for the wider church body of a specific area and population of ELCA Lutherans. There are 65 synods. Within a synod of the ELCA, there are 30 – 300 congregations. Nebraska is on the larger side at 250ish congregations). With 800+ people in a hall of the Downtown Hilton, Nebraska Synod gathered together for a wonderful three hours. Hillary was in the band, and I had the honor of being a t-shirt cannon and lead “Shake a Friend’s Hand”. We also heard from Bishop Brian Maas and met many people from across the state. Overall, it was a very worthwhile time.
This was the final evening Mass Gathering. While there were still speakers and music played, the highlight for most was the concert by Tenth Avenue North. Speakers included Stephen Bouman (ELCA Pastor serving Church-Wide), Deborah D.E.E.P. Moutan (Poet), Carson McCullar (Student), Joe Davis (Poet), Jamie and Rebekah Bruesehoff (Mom & Daughter LGBTQ+ Advocates), and Maria Rose Belding (Co-Founder/CEO of MEANS database). The entire night was so wonderful, but the highlight would be hearing and witnessing Rebekah stand and speak so confidently to the Gathering. She was also, to my understanding, the first openly trans person to speak from the main stage at the Gathering.
Day Seven: This was our last day of Gathering, and it consisted of packing up and going to Church in the morning. We worshiped with a formal liturgy at NRG stadium, with music, scripture, sermon, communion, everything! The most meaningful part to me was the use of language. The service transitioned between English and Spanish seamlessly, and I so appreciated the validation that God is present and with all of us. Regardless of one’s cultural or racial identity, God loves and calls all. This is a message many should hear clearly and often.
After our final worship together, we boarded the bus and began the long trek back to Wahoo. We drove straight through, and Hillary and I were home just in time to fall asleep around 6:00 AM, with many memories dancing across our tired hearts and minds.
Peace and Blessings,