Everything’s bigger in Texas—especially God, when the NYG is there. That was just one slogan on thousands of T-shirts crowding the streets of San Antonio at the ELCA National Youth Gathering in July. About 40,000 Lutheran youth from all over the country brought a little bit more God to Texas during the event.
Averaging four hours of sleep and running on adrenaline and Jesus, they sang grace in restaurants, traded stickers and bracelets, and chanted regional versions of Jesus Loves Me. They surrounded the only McDonald’s with lines out the door and claimed the Alamodome with Christ-inspired conga lines.
The triennial gathering was held over two weeks, with more than 15,000 high-school kids and chaperones attending July 5-9 and another 24,000 July 12-16.
MYLE, the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, and DAYLE, the Definitely-Abled Youth Leadership Event, were held July 2-5, while the Seventh Triennial Convention of the Lutheran Youth Organization took place July 9-12.
This year’s gathering theme, Cruzando (Spanish for “crossing”), was about following Jesus and crossing boundaries, a concept that came alive through San Antonio’s proximity to the U.S.-Mexican border.
But Cruzando was more than a leap into ethnic diversity. It was about transcending barriers that keep people alienated from God and each other.
Through speakers, musicians, workshops, interactive experiences and service, Lutheran youth came together for five days to strengthen their faith. I tagged along the second week as a youth group “groupie” and experienced cruzando with some of the most passionate, empowered teenagers one could meet.
Day 1: Wake up
Many groups kicked off their journey with Jesus by abandoning their beds at some daunting hour to catch a plane or by enduring six states worth of sleeplessness on a bus. After mustering enough energy (and downing a lot of Mountain Dew) to make it through the first day, hearing the message, “Wake up,” upon entering the Alamodome Wednesday night may have sounded a bit redundant. But opening speaker Tony Campolo challenged even the most caffeinated Lutherans on what it really means to be awake.
“God can change the world through people like you and people like me, and that’s what we’re here to do—surrender to Jesus,” said Campolo, founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education.
Campolo’s message resonated with the thousands of high-school kids unsure of their next step in life. “The purpose of an education is not to get credentials so you can climb the ladder of socioeconomic success,” he said. “The purpose of an education is to serve the needy.”
Reflecting on the event, Meredith Sizemore, 17, of Epiphany Lutheran Church, Richmond, Va., said: “It’s almost like a calling for 24,000 people to be here. It’s amazing that so many people felt compelled to come.”
As groups trickled out of the dome that first night, everyone took the opportunity to mess with Texas. Territorial cheers of O-H-I-O were stolen by a group of Iowans, who added their W-A ending. The lone group from Alaska waved the state flag, and Mineso-oota asserted its unquestionable strength in numbers. But amid the state wars, 24,000 kids shared the same clapping and singing of praise songs, eyes wide-awake to God.
“We’re not so different,” said Ross McClintock, 17, also of Epiphany. “Even though we’re from all different geographic parts of the country, everyone has the same purpose this week.”
Day 2: Look around
|Based on Acts 4:24, every day at 4:24 p.m. participants prayed as part of the Lutheran Youth Organization’s 4:24 Prayer Campaign.|
“Look around” at the gathering and you might have trouble narrowing your focus. Each day began and ended with speakers, musicians, videos and special effects in the Alamodome. Every afternoon, the Interaction Center featured four exhibit halls of inflatables, ropes, crafts, sports, service projects, entertainment, lounging areas and interactive booths.
With all this “stuff” and with thousands of strangers, it’s tempting to stay within one’s comfort zone—clinging to people who look the same and choosing activities that seem familiar and safe. But as Bible study leader Steve Bond told the youth Thursday morning, “God is not interested in staying safe, only faithful.”
With a Good Samaritanre-enactment, Bond, pastor of Hope (Homer City, Pa) and New Life (Marion Center, Pa.) Lutheran churches, emphasized the need to look around at one’s neighbors and serve them.
San Juana Mendoza, a charity doctor in Juarez, Mexico, followed Bond, calling on youth “to do small things with great love” in the spirit of Mother Teresa.
Waiting in line to donate blood at the Interaction Center, Caroline Comstock and Alexa Bell, both 17, of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Cole Camp, Mo., wasted no time in carrying out Mendoza’s words. “The speaker made me think more about what I want to do with my life,” Comstock said. She and Bell were among 500 donors during the second week.
Opportunities to serve at the gathering garnered overwhelming participation. More than 8,000 youth registered for off-site service in San Antonio through ServantLife, which reached its capacity months in advance (see "Cruzando: ServantLife
On-site “Way-of-Life” projects, such as sewing “Happy Hats” for leukemia patients and packing school kits, attracted a constant supply of eager volunteers. Youth also learned about helping others through advocacy—writing letters to government officials, speaking out among their friends and becoming a voice for the voiceless.
“I’m sitting here thinking I’m just a teenager—what can I do?” said Jillian Messner, 14, of Trinity Lutheran Church, Ashland, Ohio. “It made me realize I can make a difference.”Day 3: Turn around
“I pray that each and every one of you know that God is walking with you, just as he is walking with me,” Yessenia Vasquez told a solemn audience Friday night. Now a medical assistant in New Mexico, Vasquez told the story of how she escaped abuse and poverty in Guatemala to come to the U.S. alone at age 15.
Francis Bok of Sudan, who was taken into slavery at age 7, followed Vasquez with his own story. “I used to lie awake at night and wonder who is going to free me,” Bok said. “I turned my heart to God.”
American teens may never have to hide from the border patrol or escape from slavery, but the speakers’ messages were clear: Turning around is not about solving everything on your own but having the courage to admit your weakness and trust God.
Bond’s Bible study put it in pop culture perspective: “You still have to airbrush away all your scars if you want to appear on the cover of a magazine. Jesus says it’s OK to show those scars because he shows his first.”
By Friday, “scars” hidden under layers of Abercrombie and Axe were making an appearance at the gathering. “[People] don’t care what they look like; they close their eyes and jump up and down and have fun,” said Jenna Wygert, 17, of St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Longwood, Fla.
The night’s performance by the newsboys, a Christian rock band, had the entire dome on its feet. “We played here last week, and we’ve come to the consensus that Lutherans are the loudest Americans in America,” said lead singer Peter Furler. He took time during the band’s set to remind everyone of the real reason they were there, preaching about Jesus and sharing his personal journey toward faith.
As thousands of praising hands filled a sky lit with cell phones, it was enough to forget everything else.
“During those intimate moments in the dome, you can see who people really are,” said Brandon Wischow, 18, of Calvary Lutheran Church, Green Bay, Wis. “And the people who normally put on those guises don’t know they’ve taken it off.”Day 4: Cross over
“In those moments when you are afraid to cross over, God promises always to be the one who risks the first step into the water,” Bond said during Saturday’s Bible study. Crossing over was a different experience for everyone at the gathering.
Andrea Lettow, 17, of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Wasilla, Alaska, said it was when her group was introduced to the Al Raja Folkloric Dance Troupe, a group of Christian and Muslim dancers from Palestine who performed at the gathering. “When we met people from Palestine, that was one of the coolest moments—knowing that someone on the other end of the world feels the same way you do,” she said.
For many kids, crossing over was about being able to talk openly about their faith. “When I came here, I didn’t know what to expect, and now we all talk about God and Jesus and my relationship has grown stronger,” said Molly Jeppessen, 16, Shalom Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Minn.
|We all play different instruments—we all have different gifts from God. In a percussion circle at the Interaction Center, Genevieve Heyne, 15 (left), and Amanda Marshall, 16, of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Thousand Oaks, Calif., demonstrate the awesome sound produced when everyone’s gifts come together.|
The gathering encouraged kids to let out all of their concerns, questions and skepticism, with opportunities to draw their own image of God, write down their most burning questions, and even engage in conversation with church leaders during “Chatting with a bishop.”
“Why do they make crosses pretty,” a short kid with a mohawk wanted to know. Others wondered, “What do Lutherans believe about heaven?” and “What is our stance on homosexuality?”
And amid skepticism and pressure from society, crossing over was about trusting and letting God take control.
Molly Haggerty-Brewster, youth director of Calvary in Green Bay, said she noticed a difference in the group. Not only were kids now wanting to listen to Christian music, but when a member was lost, another stopped and said, “Molly, can we just pray?”
Friday night’s Fiesta de la Vida
(festival of life) celebrated the ultimate crossing over—from death to rebirth. Areas of San Antonio’s La Villita, an historic arts village, were sectioned off into the four seasons, each with Christian and Mexican holiday fiestas. Youth sampled quesadillas, danced to mariachi music and cracked cascarones
(confetti-filled Easter eggs) over each other’s heads to celebrate Christ’s resurrection.Day 5: Go with God
“People ask why I want to spend my time with young people—is it because they are the church of the future?” said ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson on Sunday morning. “I say, ‘No, it’s because they are the church of today.’ ”
During week two, Hanson led the closing eucharist with a liturgy that combined Spanish and English to tell the parable of many tongues. His sermon, which he began by leading the crowd in a massive wave, was followed by a call to cross the boundaries that separate them from Christ.
“Let us start a revolution in this Lutheran church,” he preached. “Let us be 40,000 people on fire with the Holy Spirit, going out in the world proclaiming the gospel, serving our neighbor, seeking justice, caring for the creation and following Jesus.”
Erica Schertz, 16, of Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Naperville, Ill., said: “The thing that really stuck with me was that God is calling us each to help out others in some way, and I’m thinking about that for myself. I want to spread what I learned with my friends at home who don’t know, and especially my family.”
Many groups were creating videos and Web sites to share their experience with their congregations, and some were already looking into ways to serve in their communities. Ashley Harnish and Kristy Kassinger of St. John Lutheran Church, East Earl, Pa., were developing plans for a mission trip and want to start an advocacy program in their school.
“It was amazing. I would recommend it to anyone, especially someone questioning their faith,” said Tiffany Humberson, 17, of St. Stephen, Longwood. “You come here and see so many people who connect with God and see that you can connect as well.”
Nathan Stacken, 18, of St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Marshall, Minn., said: “This experience will always stick with me. The next time you’re in a tough spot in life, you remember what you learned here.”