The planning team, in organizing and implementing this massive event, should be commended for “understanding” and engaging both the context of its attendants (the youth) and the context of its service partners (the people of Detroit). In this—guided by the creative work of the Spirit—the church was able to meet youth exactly where they are, and in turn walk with them to meet Christ exactly where he is. The music and speakers each night reflected a willingness of the church to meet the youth as who they are—not who they should be. While some of us leaders may have struggled to connect all of the references in what was being said or understand every word being sung (or rapped), youth heard familiar voices speaking to them in ways that they could grasp ahold of—in ways that honor their unique identities. Something as simple as encouraging attendants to use their smartphones to post, tweet, and instagram their experiences throughout the days (#RiseUpELCA)—giving them permission to continue living the way they already do—showed how the church is not a mold that one must fit into, but is a welcoming place for all of God’s children. The entire week there was a vibe of comfort and excitement that allowed for attendants to be open to the Spirit’s presence working in and through them. This was most explicitly shown, for instance, in the mass energy surrounding Proclaim Justice day: where 10,000 youth (a third of the entire group each day for three days) were bussed out around the city to different locations to participate in various service work in assisting and caring for the community—proclaiming justice in word and deed.
Yet, the Gathering was more than just the church moving toward youth. In the vein of going and engaging people where they are, the church also helped youth to “Rise Up,” go out into Detroit, and see the people and places where Christ is most present—to look, find, and experience Jesus in faces and spaces where they might least expect to find him. As we encountered people in the community and heard their stories, we came face-to-face with Christ. Where there was brokenness we were met with God’s wholeness, where there was despair we were overwhelmed with God’s hope, where there was signs of darkness and death that pointed back to the good ole days of the past our eyes were pried open to see God’s light and life breaking past all barriers into the future. The Gathering was not about us going to some God-forsaken place and fixing it up for those who cannot do it for themselves. It was—and is—about us being taken beyond our comfort zones, experiencing things we would otherwise never have seen or done, being taught and transformed by the people in these places of destruction and despair, and being both a blessing to others and us blessed by them. As we met people and encountered their stories, we were also encouraged to reflect on our own personal stories—each one part of God’s greater story—and consider where Christ is present within them, how Christ is at work through them. On the Proclaim Story day, groups gathered together in their synods to engage Scripture and make connections between God’s story in Jesus and our individual stories in God. In this, as a community, our hearts and minds were opened to meet Christ in the Word, worship, and the messiness of our daily lives. We came to see how—despite our privilege—we are no different from those struggling in Detroit. We bear our own struggles, uncertainties, and suffering—and Christ intimately meets us in those times and places as well.
Finally, in all that was done—in the gathering, the worship, the meals, the service, the recreation, the friendships formed, the faith renewed, the people met, the stories heard, the speakers, the music, the congo lines, the stadium wave, the laughter, the joy, the prayer, the travel, the reflection, the stories shared at home—in all these things community was formed. While there was a Proclaim Community day scheduled with activities to bring attendants together, the Body of Christ took shape in all that was done. Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, reminded us all on the first night how Jesus says he is present wherever two or three are gathered. As there were 30,000+ gathered this last week in Detroit, Michigan, Christ was present—the body of Christ was present, at work in love and service, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ through its many and various members. My youth (I hope and pray) are better—having learned so much and grown in their faith—for having attended the ELCA National Youth Gathering. I am better—my passion to service rejuvenated and my faith renewed—for having attended the ELCA National Youth Gathering. May our communities also be made better—as we bring home these experiences and share our stories from the 2015 ELCA National Youth Gathering. Rise Up Together!