Just a couple of weeks ago, 250 Montana and Wyoming teens were in Houston at the Youth Gathering with 30,000 of their closest friends. Youth Gatherings always take place in major cities, where there are facilities to accommodate such a group. This year it was Houston, the next time it will be in Minneapolis. Big cities are used to big conventions—they are run-of-the-mill. But what makes a Youth Gathering stand out in every city where we go is the day of service, when 10,000 young people, dressed in identical orange t-shirts, go out across the city to serve the neighbors.
It is highly organized. Each day one third of the gathering goes out in buses to pre-arranged locations to lend a helping hand. They do everything from construction work to child care, from visiting the elderly to weeding empty lots. Everywhere they go they are visible in their bright orange t-shirts. And people notice. A number of us adults were stopped by ordinary people in Houston to ask, “What’s going on?” “Who are these teenagers in flaming orange?” “What is this about?”
Wow. The Youth Gathering in Houston had an opportunity to make a difference in the hundreds of places where the service projects were. And they had the opportunity to tell their story, to tell our story, the Good News of Jesus Christ. These young people were not volunteering in projects that were sometimes way beyond their comfort zone because they needed an adventure. They were volunteering because of the love of Jesus Christ which would not let them keep it to themselves.
There are at least 250 kids and adults back in Montana and Wyoming now, who were part of the Youth Gathering in 2018. And there are lots more who went to Detroit in 2015, and to New Orleans before that. They know what it feels like to make a difference, and to be able to tell our story because of it.
On September 9, the ELCA has a “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday, in which congregations are encouraged to put on matching t-shirts and go out and help their neighbors. (You can get resources at www.elca.org.) It doesn’t matter if you do it a different day, if September 9 doesn’t work for you. But there is something inspiring about thousands of ELCA Lutherans all over the US and Puerto Rico donning their bright gold t-shirts and going out into their communities to serve their neighbors. As with the Youth Gathering, it is an opportunity to make a difference in our communities. And, as with the Youth Gathering, it is an opportunity to tell our story, the story of God’s love.
God’s love is what sets us apart from the many fine service clubs and organizations in our communities that do good work. We are clear. We serve our neighbors because of God’s overwhelming love for us and for all people. We serve our neighbors because Jesus died for them as well as for us. We serve our neighbors because Jesus told us to go out and do likewise.
There are several hundred people across our synod who spent 5 days in Houston under the theme, “This Changes Everything!.” Why not engage those youth and adults to help plan your congregation’s “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday? Why not harness some of that energy and enthusiasm into your congregation, into your community? A Youth Gathering happens only every three years. For most kids, that means they get to go once. But your congregation is there every year, every week, every day, serving God and neighbor, nurturing the young and equipping all to serve.
Let’s take the theme of the Youth Gathering seriously and see where it goes. “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday is a great way to begin. “This changes everything.”
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA