Most people who attend youth events, such as July's ELCA Youth Gathering (September, page 38), know an event's impact goes beyond speakers and musicians.
Encouraged at the gathering to "do life," youth from Redeemer Lutheran Church, Waverly, Iowa, distributed "free hug" coupons at the Atlanta
"I went up to one man, hugged him and gave the coupon to him," Lauren Benton recalls. "Later the man ... gave me an envelope. On the envelope was written: 'A free hug is worth more than a million, so buy your group some ice cream.' "
Inside was a fake million dollar bill and two real $100 bills. The man said he'd been tithing since he was 15, and he considered his gift to them like giving to God.
"Our youth group thought this was an awesome way of 'doing life' and a perfect way to end the trip," Benton says. They bought ice cream and gave the rest to charity.
Youth from First Lutheran Church, Sioux Falls, S.D., brought 500 stuffed animals to hand out on the way to the gathering and in Atlanta — a carryover from their "Random Acts of Kindness" emphasis during a 2002 mission trip to New York City.
"We knew it would be different this summer but thought we'd give it a whirl," says Marnie Dahle Backer, director of youth ministries. "Everyone needs a little random kindness."
Participant Scott Osthus wasn't so sure about the project: "I thought the idea of doing random acts of kindness was cool, but I wasn't sure about bears. Once I saw how giving people these gifts was brightening their day, I really got into it."
The youth attached tags to the bears that identified the church and town but not the address. "Our desire was to simply spread kindness ... we didn't want anyone to feel obligated in any way," Dahle Backer says.
But news of one bear did reach them via a third party. A woman received a bear in Atlanta on the day her divorce became final. She reportedly found great comfort in the bear she named Ubuntu, after the gathering theme.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers