The following are excerpts from Pastor Stanton’s blog I Will and I Ask God to Help Me, where he posted about his experience with our youth at the National Youth Gathering this past July.
Day One: Welcome to Detroit!!!
“Welcome to Detroit!” was the refrain we heard throughout the day from EVERYone, and the city seems genuinely excited about the arrival of over 30,000 ELCA youth and adult leaders. First Lutheran gathered at 4:00 AM for a journey that would begin a bit later than expected, but we eventually made up time. Our bus drivers, Jay and Deborah got us to Milwaukee and then to Detroit safely. So… Let me get to the fun stuff!
The energy level of so many people, from the huge crowds on sidewalks to the huge lines to eat to the crowded elevators—all with people asking, “where are you from?” and slapping high fives to strangers and dancing in the aisles… it’s unlike any other event.
For our first night at Ford Field, it was an experience of acclimation. All of us were getting used to what it all was. Where does one eat? Sit? Do I HAVE to raise my arms during this song? Do I have to sing that one? Can I be this silly? I sense our kids were taking it all in. I already loved seeing the bonds they are choosing to make with each other and truly look forward to what this group will be like by Sunday.
The most powerful speaker of the night was Dr. Luke Powery, who teaches preaching at Duke University. Dr. Powery spoke powerfully toward explaining the meaning behind our Gathering theme: “Rise Up Together”. I’ll summarize… We have come to Detroit to proclaim resurrection. Our theme text is the last parts of Mark, which leave the women at the tomb feeling terror and amazement. But, as Dr. Powery said, “the only thing worse than a scared disciple is a silent one.” If we truly believe resurrection has happened, then we have come to Detroit to claim that resurrection matters to this city and its people. “When we rise up to serve and accompany and proclaim, we kill all the isms that bring death: racism, homophobism, classism… when we rise up, we tell Hell to go to Hell. When we rise up, we build bridges, bring hope and say yes to hope, life and love.” He was a powerful preacher that all our kids responded to.
There was a moment in the event when a girl artistically represented the perspective of those who are asked “Why?” Why are you choosing to miss practices or games if you’re in a summer league? Why are you missing work? Why are you going to Detroit? Why do you do church stuff? The 15 kids who are here mostly don’t know why they are here, to be honest. Their answers on Wednesday are “to see a new city” “to have fun” and also “to do some service.” But I don’t think they need to know. Yet. That their parents and pastors pushed them into this is OK. Their presence reflects the values of their families. I am deeply thankful for the financial/time/spiritual commitment these kids and their families have given to a 5-day trip that it isn’t easy or obvious as to “Why?” they would do it. I believe God is leading us here. And that is reason enough.
Day Two: Rise Up!
After a morning of sightseeing, walking and lots of selfies… let me repeat—LOTS of selfies—our entire group converged on Detroit’s enormous Cobo (pronounced with long o’s) Convention Center. There we met with every participant from our entire La Crosse Area Synod; something like 300 in all. For four hours the kids were led through a ‘curriculum’ that centered on their “Lifeline”. They were each given a “My Story Journal” and were tasked with writing down the highs and lows of their life thus far. After mapping out their lives, we then looked at the claim God made on their lives at baptism. Whenever an activity (typically 5 or fewer minutes) ended, they were brought back into the larger group by someone yelling, “Jesus Is…” and the rest of the group shouting, “Good News”. Our own Parker Mannel was the designated “Jesus Is…” guy a number of times. A homegrown praise band from Good Shepherd, Viroqua provided the music, with our own Mickaela Larkin on the drums. She did great! We heard stories from leaders who have experienced God. Ellie Havenstrite shared the story of her father’s death and what it has been like in the aftermath… Most kids and all the adults in the room were hit hard. What I especially loved about Ellie’s story is how she was honest that she’s not always down with the whole God thing, despite the ways she admits God has been present with her family through so many friends and family. This perspective grounded the whole conversation in reality instead of some shallow story where everything turns out OK and unicorns fly over rainbows in the end because “everything happens for a reason”. Through the story of Ellie and others, we got to admit that our “lifelines” are littered with real lows while also including fantastic highs.
What’s your story? was the question asked of all the participants. And by the end of our time together, the last thing we did was draw a circle around the whole thing and label it “God’s story.” In other words, our story is a part of God’s story. His claim on us claims the good and bad stuff that has happened. Because Jesus Is!… Good News!
From supper, we went the few blocks from our hotel to Ford Field for the nightly main event. The theme from our speakers centered around privilege, diversity and equality. We heard first from one young woman who recently completed a young adult in global mission year in Madagascar. She named how eye-opening her experience was. The people around her had so little and were yet so wealthy in community and in faith. More than ever, she recognized her privilege in material and cultural status. We then heard from Eric Barreto, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico but who moved to the mainland later in childhood. He shared stories of how he has, at different times, been told to put away his Puerto Rican identity in favor of only speaking English and only acting like an American. Finally we heard from Alexia Salvatierra, who has worked with poverty and immigration for more than 20 years. She offered a powerful witness to the injustices of our broken immigration system that is not simply unhelpful to our country, but inhumane to those in need of refuge from dangerous places.
These days are so full of such meaty topics and experiences. The kids are bombarded with sights, sounds, ideas and music and told to care about so many things. They are kind of tired and kind of revved up in a way they’ve never known. There was a noticeable change in our group from Wednesday to Thursday as their comfort level with the whole thing grew in leaps and bounds. Their willingness to engage with people from Alaska over here, Virginia over there and that group from Minnesota across the street is completely different from the first day. These next two days promise to include even more energy, more ideas and deeper faith. I definitely see God stretching our kids. After all, Jesus is… Good news!
Day 3: Building Bridges
We started out tired today. Last night’s conversations got late in all the rooms, it sounds like. That, of course is a good thing, because one of the primary purposes of the trip is to grow friendships, explore Christian conversations and share ourselves with each other. That is definitely happening! My deep and sincere thanks to Sandi Thompson-Melby, Teesha Willinger and Tina Nelson for being so willing and able to guide our kids physically through the crowds and also spiritually.
This morning we made our way to the Cobo Center where the grandest and greatest ministry fair you’ve ever seen took up acres and acres of indoor convention center floors. Mini-golf, bumper cars powered by bicycle wheels, volleyball, basketball, tether-ball and every organization within the Lutheran church you can think of was represented. Peace without walls, walk for water, the malaria campaign… people were donating blood, hair and money. People made bracelets, peace puppets, art for hope and received buttons, tattoos and lots of pens. Thousands of participants spent the entire day walking from booth to booth, experience to event, court to conversations.
In the evening we ran to Ford Field for the main event. We heard from a Young Adult in Global Mission again tonight who offered a great story about a God-moment when peace was experienced between herself and the two blind Arabic speaking Muslim students she was tasked to teach. The moment came through yoga. Breathing in peace and using bodies she said communicated something true and deep.
We then heard from a Jerusalem-born pastor who works with BRIDGES (Building Respect in Diverse Groups to Enhance Sensitivity). It was a good talk about recognizing the similarities we have while honoring differences.
We then heard from a pastor who lived through Hurricane Sandy. She shared that her apartment building remained unscathed while the one across the street lost power, got flooded and had no heat. After 11 days like this, still no one had gotten around to helping her neighbors. It was a public housing facility and most were black or brown. It truly bothered her that there was such disparity between her building and the one that was only across the street. It made her ask, Whose lives matter? Why aren’t we all around one table? She has since explored some of these questions and begun a “Dinner Church” which centers around eating together (genius!… like Jesus did) “All of this inequality and broken systems will break your heart if you really take the time to see it and notice it. It may even break your faith. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.” What she was saying is, maybe our faith needs to be bothered out of our comfortable narcissism and into other people’s difficult lives. And maybe that can happen easiest over the dinner table. My favorite part was that she admitted her ministry has not built the bridge between the buildings, but we now have people standing in between, and that’s a start. “I haven’t figured anything out. I just refuse to look away.”
Our final speaker was a pastor from Milwaukee whose congregation, four years ago, endured the racist shooting of an 11 year-old boy whose name was Darius. This boy’s white neighbor killed him while the boy took out the trash. In the aftermath, Darius’ mother chose not to hold on to hatred, and his pastor has chosen to make ‘loving your neighbor’ his ministry. At the center of his message is the power of Jesus. It can only sound simple and perhaps even obvious as you read this blog—especially if you are already a Christian. But this pastor talked about the power of Jesus for about 10 minutes in a VERY energetic way. His words and style broke into our kids’ imaginations better than any other speaker this week.
Day 4: Proclaim Justice
Saturday was our long-awaited day of service; our Proclaim Justice Day. The logistics of transporting 30,000 Lutherans over three days to thousands of sites throughout the city is a task whose demands go beyond my imagination. As with any large scale invasion, our good-works assault did not go without snafus. Day one’s launches were slow to get out. Some groups were told to arrive at Hart Plaza at 10:45 only to be sent away by mid-afternoon because of transport issues or miscommunication. But this was the exception. On day two, the first launch at 8:45 got inundated with rain. And I do mean HEAVY rain. Some sites were a washout as outdoor activities were planned. I hoped that by day three—with favorable weather—we may enjoy the fruits of a little practice on the part of those responsible for these experiences. My hopes were not only fulfilled, but we had as good an experience as anyone on the entire trip.
We were among those launched early on bus 53 (there were hundreds). By 9:30 we were on our bus and by 9:45 we had arrived at our site. No one told me or any other member of our party what we were to do until Megan, our servant companion told us en route. We were to reclaim a sidewalk next to a neglected private lot. This lot took up an entire block. Upon arrival, there was nothing that made it look like there was anything but a grass path to work with. Upon some archaeological-like digging, hoeing, scraping and pulling, a cement sidewalk was discovered. The thatch, roots, garbage and filth were so deep that in the first two hours two buses full of people made little progress.
It was 94 degrees, by the way. The heat index was 104. A girl from a congregation in Alexandria, MN, went down with heat exhaustion. I drank seven bottles of water throughout the day and never had to use the porta-potty once. After our lunch on the bus (which was food that could only be consumed when truly hungry), we hit our stride in the afternoon. Talking and picture-taking took a back seat to the grimy work of hauling the blanket of filth away uncovering a walkway. But as 2:30 approached it became clear that we wouldn’t finish the entire block. Some were asking whether we could stay longer to make sure it gets done. Remember… it was miserably hot.
That’s when the bobcat showed up. A landscaper down the street saw all the orange shirts working so hard and decided to drive down to our site. In 20 minutes, he finished what would have taken us hours. It was left for us to simply sweep up.
Now, one could have looked at this development cynically. “Well, what took us hours, this guy does in a few minutes.” But this guy wouldn’t have come had we not been there. He had driven past this overgrown lot dozens of times and done nothing. But today, he put his bobcat to work. The guy across the street who ran a car-detailing shop hadn’t attended to his vegetation all year. Some was 10 feet tall. While we cleaned up the ugliest eyesore in the neighborhood, he came out to weed-whack his own property. Oh, and he went to the store and bought eight cases of water for us, too. We drank it all. Nearby, two women hung out a window watching us. They went over to the fire station across the street and asked the firemen to open a hydrant for us. They were happy to oblige.
Our presence in that neighborhood did not, in the end, do that much to the physical appearance of anything. We did make the daily walk for students on their way to school a little safer as we got rid of a lot of glass. And people on their way to the bus have a nicer walk, too. But next year at this time, that thatch and garbage might have all returned. But the spirit of cooperation, the concern we showed and the outpouring of community interaction that happened will never go away. Community happened through our humble efforts. Christ was there.
Before we went to sleep tonight we named the fact that this is our last night in Detroit. Before we know it, we’ll be back home. We started to think about how to make the transition. And we prayed for the person to the left of us after getting in a circle. We gave thanks to God for the humor, the persistence, the open-heartedness of the person next to us. It was beautiful. It was a good-ol’-day for these kids and for the adults who got to come along.
Pastor Stanton’s blog I Will and I Ask God to Help Me can be found at pastorjasonstanton.blogspot.com. After his experience blogging during the National Youth Gathering he is thinking about posting his sermons as well, and promises to share them to our Facebook page.