Just over two years ago, I presented the dream of Hope sending youth to not one, but two youth gatherings – the 2017 Western States Youth Gathering with the theme of DREAM BIG and the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston with the theme of THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING. Hope captured the dream and answered the call, supporting us through our various fundraisers and buoying us in our journey with prayer. Thank you! We will never forget the experiences shared and the ways we have grown during these two summers.
It is fitting that our first night at the Gathering in Houston focused on call. It was God’s call that brought over 31,000 of us to that one specific time and place. On this first night, we heard from six speakers, including the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. They shared their unique stories of God’s call in their lives. Our youth were struck by how different their backgrounds and stories may have been, but how clearly God’s love and call connected each of them.
After a rousing first night, we spent our full day laying a strong foundation for what the Gathering had in store for us through worship, song, and bible study with the Gathering participants from our synod. We dug into the story of the Woman at the Well, as shared in John 4. We connected with the youth and adults from our synod and had a great time building our relationships. Little did we know, there was so much more in store for us. That night, at our mass gathering, we heard from four speakers who shared the ways God’s love transformed their lives and the ways they love others. The final speaker, Marlon Hall, shared how being a father was the answer to a call he had since he was 16. He reminded us that God’s love is always surrounding us. We don’t need to do anything to achieve it; rather, to simply turn and receive it.
It was hard to imagine this gathering getting any better, but it did. Our group spent the earlier part of the second full day in service to the Houston community. We helped a small local garden called Harry Holmes Healthy Harvest Community Garden, a garden specifically for seniors of the community. Our youth and leaders had a great time preparing the garden beds, conversing with the senior women present, and hearing their stories about Hurricane Harvey.
At the mass gathering that night, we heard from five speakers who bravely shared their personal experiences and how God’s grace has impacted their lives. Rev. Will Starkweather shared how God’s grace has helped him through his recovery from self-harm. He also gave us a rousing mantra that I’m sure will stay with us forever, “There’s grace for that.”
We heard clear definitions of grace from Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber who reminded us of our baptismal promises and led us in a powerful renunciation of the lies of the Deceiver that keep us from fully living into God’s grace for the world. Imagine the voices of 31,000 proclaiming, “I renounce them,” echoing through an entire arena. It was awe-inspiring.
On our final day, we explored the Interaction Center at the NRG Center. This space served as a kind of “holy playground.” It was a place for participants to engage in learning opportunities that support the mission of the Gathering and its theme, as well as lift up the partner organization or group. This “holy playground” also included plenty of rest and reflection spaces, which, at this point of the Gathering, were greatly needed! After some time learning about the variety of ways people are living out their faith in the world, we decided to get an early dinner at the food trucks sitting outside of the center and brave the heat, waiting in line for just over an hour to get seats on the floor. After about ten minutes, half of the group regretted this choice, because it was so incredibly hot to wait in 94-degree sun, humidity, and surrounded by thousands of other sweating youth awaiting the opening of these doors. Ultimately, it was well worth it. We were quickly cooled off by the A/C in the arena, rehydrated, and ready to dance. Yes, we made it to the floor seating, an especially energized zone to experience the speakers and musicians. It was also a special place to sit for, arguably, the best speakers of the whole gathering.
“I see you – signs and sacraments of defiant hope in a broken world.” – Rev. Dr. Stephen Bouman
“You just have to be the drop of hope in this empty bucket world.” – Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton
“I may have lost hope for me, but God never did.” – Carson McCullar
“We don’t have to wait until we’re all grown up to make an impact. We can be hope for the church and for all people. They need us.” – Rebekah Bruesehoff
“God has plenty of love, grace, and hope to spare. I promise.” – Maria Rose Belding
“When we take the hospitality of home everywhere we go, then we are no longer only in a church building, but we are building church.” – Joe Davis
Yes, there were tears in our eyes this night. We hugged, we supported each other, and we ended our night together held tightly by the grip of God’s hope.
Just when the Gathering feels like we have all the time in the world to celebrate together, it’s over. Even as I write this, I have a hard time fathoming how quickly it all went. Besides the fantastic speakers we heard from throughout the Gathering, we also experienced beautiful dance and moving music from the house band and visiting artists. Closing worship brought it all together, beginning with a procession of the cross, paired with a gorgeous dance solo. Bishop Eaton preached and the we shared communion together – all 31,000 of us. Believe it or not, communion only took 20 minutes. Worship closed with our sending speaker, Savanna Sullivan, the ELCA’s Director for Young Adult Ministry. Through the sharing of her own story, she challenged each of us to consider how we would answer the question, “What will you live for?” Luckily for us, the themes of each preceding day, God’s call, love, grace, and hope, give us clarity in our answer. We will take this question and these themes with us from here on out. We invite you to do the same. What do you live for? Where do you see God’s call, love, grace, and hope in your day? How does the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus change everything?
Thank you again for the many ways you have supported us in our journey to the Gathering. We are forever changed.
To watch more speakers and highlights from the Gathering, visit their YouTube page HERE.