Bringing the ELCA Youth Gathering home
Three of the 24 youth from First Lutheran
Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, participate
in a service project at the 2009 Youth
Gathering in New Orleans.
Dustin Wendt, a high school junior who is a member of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lewiston, Idaho, had some mixed feelings about going to New Orleans in August 2009.
Frankly, at first he wasn't sure it was a good idea.
Dustin's youth group at his ELCA congregation was attending the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering, a triennial event for high-school youth with a focus on service and justice.
It seemed like a long drive to a very hot and humid destination.
But then, Dustin recalls, "the kids at my church started watching videos (about the Gathering), our pastor started talking about it and then it finally hit me that people still needed help (after Hurricane Katrina) and how amazing of an experience it was going to be," he says.
Dustin's experience turned out to be more than amazing; it was transforming.
"After listening to guest speakers (at the Gathering), I set a goal to one day do what they have done in the world," he says.
He's now applying his fundraising skills to help the earthquake survivors in Haiti and is heading to Tanzania with other members of his congregation on a mission trip in August 2010.
Dustin isn't alone. Nearly 10 months after the 2009 Gathering closed, adults and youth -- still energized by the event -- are discovering how they can live out "God's work. Our hands." in their communities.
Inspired to serve
The idea of attending the ELCA Youth Gathering tugged at the heart of Peg Harvey-Marose, Dustin's pastor at Grace Evangelical Lutheran. She and her husband organized and chaperoned Dustin's group on their trip to New Orleans.
Peg's involvement during college in Lutheran Student Movement and Lutheran Campus Ministry had changed her life; she wanted to give that opportunity to her congregation's youth.
Since their return from New Orleans, the five youth at Grace have been hard at work, from serving homeless families to becoming involved with their synod's Lutheran Youth Organization. One student is now a member of the congregation council.
"When the nursery attendant's salary was cut from the congregation's budget due to financial difficulties, the Youth Committee, on which all these kids serve, decided to fund that position with money raised for their ministry," Peg continues.
"They may not realize that these are a result of attending the ELCA Youth Gathering, but, as their pastor, I can see it."
A heartwarming response
For Brian Middleswarth, director of teen ministry at First Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the trip to New Orleans felt personal. His city had experienced devastating flooding during the summer of 2008.
"While our flooding was not as widespread as New Orleans, the impact on the neighborhoods affected and to our city infrastructure and governance was similar," he says.
"Our area of interest (in New Orleans) was housing, because that was, and continues to be, one of the biggest needs in Cedar Rapids today."
The youth group chose "From Cedar Rapids to New Orleans... and back" as their theme.
In New Orleans, as the group put mulch around trees, they received thanks from grateful neighbors.
"Several of my youth had a conversation with a homeowner who talked about the flooding, thanked them for their work and offered them the use of his pool to cool down," Brian adds.
The adults continue to marvel at the generosity of New Orleans' residents toward the 37,000 ELCA youth, which allowed the high-school students to return home knowing their short visit made a lasting impression on the city.
"Most unexpected for me was the reception we received from the people of New Orleans and their great appreciation," Peg recalls. "We were part of the largest servant event in history!
"Everywhere we went, individuals would thank us for being there. When we were leaving and were going through the security at the airport, the woman checking our ID's asked if we were with the Lutheran group. After saying we were, she thanked us profusely."
Brian Raymond, a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church in East Longmeadow, Mass., says he'll never be the same again after his New Orleans experience.
"I really thought about how poor some areas of the country are," he says. "With that in mind, I've made it a goal to do all I can to help people in need in my community and all over the country."
The story will continue when New Orleans hosts the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering. Stay tuned!