Last week Youth from the Virginia Synod joined over 30,000 other high school youth and adult leaders from around the country for a week of faith formation at the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, Texas. This event was five days of learning, interacting, serving alongside local residents, worshipping, connecting with thousands of other Lutherans, and so much more! The theme “This Changes Everything” constantly focused participants attention on how God’s call, love, grace, and hope shapes everything we do.
“God’s Call Changes Everything”
The June 27 opening night Mass Gathering the Gathering was marked by spirited testimonies of God’s call, fitting with the day’s theme: “God’s Call Changes Everything.” As the first Mass Gathering got underway, Gathering participants witnessed a memorable, energizing introduction to this five-day faith formation event. Highlights included words of welcome from Michael Rinehart, bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, and a poetic performance from Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, the current Poet Laureate for the City of Houston. LZ7, a Christian electronic dance music group from Manchester, England, brought youth to their feet with high energy, joyful songs illuminating God’s presence in the world.
Rev. Tuhina Rasche, an ELCA pastor, and writer told youth her call began with a simple invitation to dinner hosted by her college’s Lutheran campus ministry. Rasche started attending their worship services, and one day, while singing a hymn, she was struck by an encounter with God. “God sent me messenger after messenger after messenger, setting fires all around me and I finally realized, oh hey, there’s a fire,” she said. That fire was the Holy Spirit acting in her life. “If a former Hindu can be a Lutheran pastor then, yeah, God’s call changes everything,” Rasche said.
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, closed out the Mass Gathering, encouraging youth to consider how their vocations intersect with our calling as Christians to pursue compassion, justice and reconciliation. Stevenson encouraged Lutherans to speak out and name injustice: “When we see injustice, it is necessary that people of faith speak their truth,” he said. “We’re gonna have to say things when it would be easier to be quiet.” He spoke of tragic injustice facing young children who get tried as adults and caught up in the prison system, and he implored students to speak out for justice. “I think God is calling us to love and wrap our arms around the kids who are struggling, the kids who are in jail,” he said.
“God’s Love Changes Everything”
On the first full day of the Gathering, youth from the Virginia Synod were invited to participate in Interactive Learning and Community Life, where lots of fun hands-on learning experiences were set up! There were opportunities to learn from Women of the ELCA, Reconciling Works, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, Lutheran Disaster Response, the ELCA’s strategy to Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities (AMMPARO), and many more! There were also opportunities to give back, with stations for hair donation, blood donation, a book drive, and fundraising for ELCA’s Global Farm Challenge.
These activities all led to the second Mass Gathering. Caroline Meeker opened the Mass Gathering by sharing her battle with anorexia, a disease for which she was hospitalized at the age of nine. “I couldn’t stop the voice in my head telling me not to eat,” she said. “I was literally disappearing, physically and mentally.” In the hospital, receiving nutrition from a feeding tube, Meeker felt like she’d lost everything. As she recovered, she began noticing God. “God was there in my family, church, and friends. God was everywhere,” Meeker told youth. The experience helped her see God doesn’t give us hardships, but “God promises to be there.”
Other highlights included musical performances from Ryan Brown, Rachel Kurtz and Guardian Drum and Bugle Corps.
Deacon Erin Power spoke about the importance of finding a church home and how we are called to express and embody such a home for a world in need. Power hoped that participants would go home with the realization that “Our call as the church is to embody radical hospitality and we need to proclaim this message.”
Youth were also moved by Virginia Synod’s own Rev. Aaron Fuller’s heartfelt speech about his ministry as a wrestling coach and Navy chaplain. Fuller only became a pastor recently, after working as a Naval Officer and struggling with his own demons related to his identity. “I used to keep people at a distance,” he told youth. “What changed? In my own life, my own dark moments, people walked alongside me. The thing I was going through never scared them.” Today, as a chaplain, Fuller accompanies sailors and wrestlers as they wrestle with life’s ups and downs. “The world needs us to be courageous and walk alongside others in [dark] moments,” he said. “What they don’t need us to do is fix their problems and save their world. What they do need is love.” Fuller’s hope was that those attending the Mass Gathering would have the “courage to see suffering in the world, not turn away and enter into it.”
Houstonian and storyteller Marlon Hall closed out the evening by blessing ELCA youth with a message of love—and a call to action. “You were born to make an indelible mark on the world that no one can erase,” he said. “If you don’t make that mark that mark won’t be made. You make this mark by the love of God.”
“God’s Grace Changes Everything”
“God’s Grace Changes Everything” set the tone for the second full day of the gathering. Youth and adults from the Virginia Synod had the opportunity to gather as the Virginia Synod community for their Synod Day. Together we sang songs, played games to better get to know one another, and worshiped together. Bishop Humphrey led us through the scripture for the day during our time together at Synod Day as well, examining the Biblical story of the Ethiopian Eunuch.
This focus on grace led into the day’s Mass Gathering Elizabeth Peter opened the evening by examining the Biblical story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, who was stigmatized and stereotyped. “Maybe you’ve been stereotyped, too,” she said, later adding: “There are times where I feel like I’m not always included. I don’t always feel welcomed in the church. Because of my skin, my gender, my youth, my hair, the way I talk and dress.”
God’s limitless grace was reflected again and again as others took the stage to share their stories, including Michaela Shelley, who has been fighting mitochondria disease since she was a teenager. For a long time, she was angry at God and at everyone. Then she started connecting with other teenagers with mitochondria disease, eventually creating an online support group for teens like her that has now connected 500 people from 20 countries. “No matter how many times you curse God, he still loves you no matter what,” Shelley said. “God’s grace is not only about forgiveness but about the way you can become the person you are meant to become.”
Rev. Will Starkweather, an ELCA pastor, shared his experience with cutting during his teenage and young adult years. In college, when he revealed his secret to his pastor, that pastor told Starkweather he was going to hell. Starkweather left the church, dropped out of school and fell into a deep depression—and he cut. Eventually, he began to rebuild his life. He found a new church, then divulged his secret to the pastor. “Pastor Carla listened and then she also said four words: There’s grace for that,” Starkweather said. “Y’all, those words changed my life.” He learned cutting is a coping mechanism for stress and began to start sharing his story with others so they’d know they were not alone. Starkweather went on to become an ELCA pastor. Acknowledging the hurt and pain that resides in each of us, Starkweather told all who were gathered, “We are all recovering from something—and there is grace for that.”
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA pastor and best-selling author, gave the final talk of the evening. She proclaimed to youth: “If your life totally sucks right now, if you struggle with having friends or feeling like and outsider, just know that your current reality is not your ultimate reality. “There’s a word for when our tears turn to joy. There’s a word for when our pain is a home for those who also hurt,” Bolz-Weber said. “And that, my Lutheran friends, is grace.” She said she wishes someone had told her 15-year-old self what grace was. That’s why Bolz-Weber writes and preaches so honestly about her life experiences, because “the jagged edges of our humanity are what connect us to God and to each other.” God isn’t waiting for you to be thinner, smarter or more spiritual, she preached. “You are magnificently imperfect. The self God loves is your actual self, not your ideal self. And there’s a word for this: grace.” The implications of God’s radical grace mean that God’s grace is also for our enemies, she said. The uncomfortable truth is this: “salvation of my enemy is also wrapped up in my own salvation,” Bolz-Weber said.
“God’s Hope Changes Everything”
On the last full day of the ELCA Youth Gathering, the daily theme was “God’s Hope Changes Everything.” For this day youth and adult leaders from the Virginia Synod had the opportunity to participate in Service Learning. With a variety of service projects taking place all over the city of Houston. Clearing away debris and overgrowth at a historic cemetery, cleaning up some area churches that had been impacted by Hurricane Harvey, hosting book fairs for communities in need, cleaning up park spaces in Houston were just some of the many ways that Virginia Synod served in the Houston area as part of their service learning day.
The Mass Gathering for the day was an expression of how God’s hope changes everything. The speakers tonight covered intense topics that need to be discussed thoughtfully and honestly within our faith communities. Rev.Stephen Bouman, executive director for ELCA Domestic Mission, opened up the final evening of the Gathering with a heartfelt speech on current issues facing the US and this church, including gun violence in our schools, racism, and the ongoing demonization of refugees and immigrants. Bouman shared how he has seen signs of hope in the work of his church, the ELCA, in its advocacy work, fighting hunger in the US and beyond, building peace globally, and accompanying migrant families and children through its AMMPARO initiative.
Youth were moved when Jamie Bruesehoff and her 11-year-old daughter, Rebekah, shared their story. Rebekah is transgender. “When I was younger, I was worried and confused. Why did I have to go through all of this?” Rebekah shared. “I’ve come to learn that God does not make mistakes. I was created in the image of God to be me.” Since claiming her gender identity, Rebekah has gone on to speak to lawmakers and others, advocating on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly those who are transgender. “Transgender kids are just like other kids,” she said. “We need to be loved and supported.” As she wrapped up her speech, Rebekah called on youth to make a difference in their own communities and congregations and show others hope. “I hope for a church and world where people are not only welcomed but they are celebrated,” Rebekah said. “Go out. Start something. Help somebody struggling in their community. Cheer them on. Throw them a party. Paint a giant rainbow flag outside. That’s what I want my church to do.”
Maria Rose Belding, executive director of MEANS Database, spoke about her journey to create a national nonprofit database connecting people and organizations with extra food to donate it to nearby hunger nonprofits. She opened up to youth about her anxiety and depression in high school while she was working to create MEANS. Belding also discussed her sexuality and past trauma. When she came out to her mentor as queer, he raped her. “What happened to me what not my fault, and if this happened to you, it wasn’t yours either,” Belding said. “God’s hope and love and grace are enough for every queer rape survivor, and every hungry person who has been told to just be more responsible, and everybody in recovery from something, and every child and parent torn apart at our border.”
Joe Davis, a poet, musician and recent ELCA seminary graduate, inspired youth with a message of hope amid adversity. “I am a Black man and I am speaking in front of one of the whitest church denominations. My very body is the hope of my ancestors, my very presence is a prayer,” he said. “In a world that speaks death to me … my existence is resistance. I am here for a purpose and a reason.” Davis told you they were here for a purpose and reason, and he encouraged them to be bold in their faith. “You may have been told to shut up and sit down but I wanna tell you to stand up and speak out,” he said. “We’re no longer in a church building but we are building church.”
Ten Avenue North closed out the evening with a spirited performance of songs that touched on God’s love, grace, and hope.
“Jesus Changes Everything”
The final Mass Gathering concluded the event with Sunday worship and communion and a sermon from Bishop Eaton. An exciting announcement for where The next ELCA Youth Gathering will be held closed the event. In 2021 Minneapolis Minnesota will be the host city for the ELCA Youth Gathering!
To watch a video highlighting some of the many great experiences had at the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering, click here.
Are you looking for more ways to share your Gathering experience with friends and family? The ELCA Youth Gathering Team has tons of pictures and videos to help you share the Gathering story! Check out the albums on the National Youth Gathering’s Facebook page, as well as videos available on YouTube.