(NT-NL Synod Day)
The 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering was held June 24-July 1. The Multicultural Youth Leadership Experience (MYLE) and the tAble (formerly the Definitely-abled Youth Leadership Experience) were held June 24-27, with the full gathering kicking off July 27. NT-NL congregations participated, sending over 330 youth to the gathering, as well as other congregations participating in MYLE and the tAble. For the first time, I hosted a “bishop’s group” for the gathering. This group was made up of 31 youth from 14 congregations who otherwise probably would not have participated in the gathering. These youth came from congregations across the territory of the NT-NL and represented urban, suburban, rural, and small towns. Additionally, 7 youth from Umoja, Fort Worth, participated in the group as well.
While I was the primary leader, I was greatly assisted in organization by Janelle Miller (Calvary, Richland Hills) and by my other adult leaders: Ashley Loest (Calvary, Richland Hills), Pastor Matt Schroeder (Trinity, Fort Worth), Thane and Stephanie McCann (Advent, Arlington), and SAWL Nicholaus Chove (Umoja, FW). It was a joy to travel with these leaders. We began our gathering experience Wednesday night with a mass gathering experience.
Each evening throughout the gathering, we heard from speakers, enjoyed powerful music, and had time to worship and pray together. The gatherings’ three central days (Thursday-Saturday) were split into 3 distinct tasks. Thursday was “Synod day” for the 330+ youth and adults for NT-NL at the #ELCAYG2018 in Houston. The youth led worship, and I filled my role as bishop, preaching and presiding over communion. The theme of the day was “God’s love changes everything.”
Synod day was also highlighted by a new thing this gathering. All the participants were given synod-specific shirts funded by generous donors to the synod and designed by Courtney Sullivan (Faith, Flower Mound). In addition to Pastor Schroeder, Pastor Kate Knutson (Preston Meadow, Plano) and Jay Walls (Youth director, PMLC) were instrumental in organizing the youth leaders from various congregations in our synod. Our synod day worship closed, led in song by Sam Noble (Calvary, Richland Hills). He composed an original song, which was also featured at the closing worship service of the entire gathering on Sunday (you can hear it here).
At the mass gathering Thursday night, Caroline Meeker (Preston Meadow, Plano) spoke before the entire gathering. She spoke of her struggle with an eating disorder from a young age and how God’s love had helped her heal and continues to sustain her. Sustaining her now as she reaches out and spreads hope to others struggling. Caroline and Sam were two of the NT-NL young people to be featured in speaking or performing before the entire gathering. In addition, Savanna Sullivan (Faith, Flower Mound) also spoke on Sunday morning about her experience as a Young Adult in Global Mission (YAGM) and her work now as the director for young adult ministries in the ELCA. It was a great joy to see our NT-NL young people highlighted in this way and hear them share their stories and their gifts.
Friday was service learning day. We fanned out throughout Houston under the theme “Grace…changes everything.” NT-NL Synod, ELCA congregations spent their day in service. Some painted and repaired houses, others weeded neighborhood lots, a lucky crew laid astroturf from the astrodome in a school playground, many more learned about the diverse history of Houston. All served with great attitudes and willing spirits.
The bishop’s group was assigned to work with Abiding Grace, Southlake, and groups from New York and South Dakota, at a literacy education event and book fair (distributing books collected at the gathering). For 4 hours, the young people escorted parents and children through a series of literacy games and then book selection. While not as physical a role as others, the impact of this day will be long standing as well.
A fulfilling day of service ended with another powerful dome session. Inspiring speakers spoke of how grace had come to them in their lives and communities. 34 of our group made it onto the floor for the evening. The four of us who did not missed that experience but enjoyed a great view as well.
Saturday the theme was “Hope…changes everything.” It was the last full day of the gathering and was a great day of learning for our youth from across NT-NL Synod, ELCA. While I was leading my group, I also was able to connect with many of our NT-NL groups while in the interaction center. There they could have fun, play games, learn about the ministries of our church, and many other options. The youth in my group had an interesting and, as they reported, occasionally surprising, day. My only requirement was that, as their admission to dinner, they bring a piece of swag from the ELCA colleges and universities display.
I got to have some fun also driving the shuttle, connecting with friends old and new, played the part, along with six other bishops and youth, of one of the three men who visited Abraham and Sarah bringing the promise of a child (Sarah laughed) and spent time praying with youth and mentors from across the country. In addition, I connected with Pastor Kris Totzke, Bishop’s Associate for Leadership Formation and Congregational Care, who spent the gathering in the interaction center at the NT-NL synod booth. There she offered treats, a charging station, and also shared with youth and pastors about our synod and the work we do in our context. I was grateful for Pastor Totzke taking that time and her work sharing the good news of what is “popping” in NT-NL.
Mass gathering that evening focused on hope. Hope in the face of challenges and tragedy. In the face of the many divisions and divides of our time. Hope that our church might participate in the work God is doing to bring healing and wholeness to our broken world.
Our final morning was spent in worship before returning to DFW. Communing with 31,000 other disciples of Jesus is always a powerful and profound experience. Bishop Eaton preached and challenged us to take what we had learned, the experiences we have had and share that good news with others. We also learned that in 2021 the gathering will be hosted in Minneapolis, MN. The first time in 30 years the gathering has been in Minnesota.
It was a joy to take time to be with our young people. To see and share together each night in our devotional time and watch them connect and grow. Even though they came from a number of different congregations, and most didn’t know more than 1 or 2 others in the group at the beginning, they quickly connected and grew together. I pray they will continue to keep those connections going forward as we look to build our synodical youth and young adult ministries.