Monday, February 5, 2018


At the end of January, I was with the ELCA Youth Ministry Network's Extravaganza in Houston. This is an annual event that the Network hosts every year to learn, renew, connect with other church leaders from all over the country. Some of the ways this event makes this happen is through workshops, general sessions with keynote speakers, and regional and synodical meet ups.

The theme for this year's E was "Finding Forward" - what do we need to do to help move the church forward? This challenges the comfort of the status quo. Changing the focus from "that's what we've always done," to "what's a new way we can reach people that we haven't been able to before?" or "who within our community is being left behind that we can help?" or "What are the gifts of our congregation that we haven't been able to showcase yet?"

Friday night we had our first General Session. There, we heard from Enrique Morones from Border Angels. The goal of Border Angels is "to ensure that all people are received with a sense of humanity and compassion, and that the cycle of death along the border does not continue into the coming years" They are driven by Matthew 25:35 - “When I was hungry, did you give me to eat? When I was thirsty, did you give me to drink?” Border Angels works with many issues related to immigration. They bring out water to the desert where people are known to travel, they help those here who don't get fair wages because of their immigration status, and they do a whole lot of advocacy. One of the biggest points that Enrique made was that immigration is a world wide issue. In the US, we hear a lot about a the boarder wall (which according to him has killed at least 11,000 people already. Think about how many animals that would kill and displace as well). However, its not just a US/Mexico issue. In America, we also get a lot of people from Central and South America. Its also important to note that most of the migration deaths are happening around the Mediterranean Sea - people escaping from places like Syria and washing up on the shores Greece. The Border Angels are doing everything they can so we don't have to see any more pictures of dead kids washed up on any shore. It's a tough and complicated issue, but they are doing whatever they can to show compassion to all of those who decide to immigrate not matter how they chose to do so.

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On Saturday I was a part of two main activities. We had our Region 5 touch point in the morning, then had the Gathering tour in the afternoon. For our regional touch point, we met with all the participants from region 5 - including Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Michigan. It was a great chance to not only catch up with people from our Central/Southern Illinois conference, but also all my old friends from Iowa!

That afternoon I went on a 4 hour tour around Houston to see some of the things we will get to see this summer as part of the National Youth Gathering. First stop was was near downtown that was full of beautiful murals since it was great for photo ops! Luckily, when Grace Lutheran comes to town, our hotel is downtown so we won't be far.

Then, we were off to see one of the service learning sites for the week. The goal of these service learning projects is to have a mix of learning about Houston and the people who live there, as well as getting our hands dirty to help with the work organizations are already doing in the area. While each bus went to a different site, my bus went to the neighborhood of Freedmens Town. This is an area of Houston that was allocated to slaves who were freed after the Civil War. However, because of Jim Crow laws and the lack of acknowledgement from local and state government, these people were left to become self sufficient. For instance, one of the biggest issues was healthcare. Hospitals in the area and time where either Whites Only or Coloreds Only. The closest "emergency room" that this neighborhood had access to would be a 2 hour drive today from this area of Houston.

Luckily, they came together and used the skills they learned while they were slaves and built beautiful houses, paved their own streets, grew their own crops, and eventually even had their own doctors and lawyers. Unfortunately, since then the neighborhood has not been well maintained and is undergoing major gentrification. Now, the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum foundation is working to reclaim and refurbish these homes and showcase all the amazing things that went on in this neighborhood.

This is a model of what the neighborhood is to believed to have looked like before reconstruction. The frames of houses represent houses that have been torn down to create new buildings in the area

So to bring it back to the Gathering, a service site like this would include a few different things. Firstly, the students would get to experience the museum like we did, hearing stories about the people who lived there and how they inspired people all over the country. Then, they would work with the organization with projects like archaeology. They would excavate the area with local archaeologists to try to find artifacts that help them understand what life was like for these families. This would have the learning component tied in with literally getting our hands dirty.

"Being safe is risky, and being risky is safe," that was one of the points Saturday's speaker, Marlon F. Hall made during the General Sessions. Hall is a pastor in the Houston area, but the impression was that he spends very little time in an actual church building.

Hall pushes the boundaries for what ministry means. Does it have to be confined to Sunday mornings? Do people have to sit in pews? Does it have to be in our church building?

One of the first ministries he described was the Eat Gallery. This was a restaurant created to host local chefs who had great talent, but may not be able to house their own restaurant quite yet. Not only did this support local culinary artists, but the community got a chance to come and enjoy a variety of foods all in one spot. Unfortunately, his congregation took a huge hit, losing most of their members because they didn't want their pastor to also spend his time as a restaurant manager. However, he stuck with this ministry because he knew it benefited his community and made a real impact.

He's started other ministries since then, including Project Row Houses where they showcase local artists, such as writers, musicians, and filmmakers, to reflect what is going on in the community. They display this art in local row houses to, again, curb the gentrification of these neighborhoods. He also started Folklore Films to help share the stories from the community, specially the hard stories that are sometimes either hidden, ignored, or hard to come by. Nonetheless, these stories need to be told in order for the city to heal.

He tells this story about a screening he had with the mayor of Houston.  She loved the screening and was deeply moved, so she knew there was more to Hall's story. Hall tells how the mayor kept asking him about his work, and who he was. He started of with the fact that he is a husband and a father, then he went on to talk about his work with Folklore Films, then he finally broke and said, "you know what? I'm a pastor." He was terrified because Folklore Films was given a grant from the city, and it wasn't supposed to be used for religious purposes. However, the mayor was thrilled. She told him how she had been looking for a pastor, looking for a church, and she may have finally experienced true church through his film.

There was a funny trend that happened all week. Every time someone from E ran into a local, the first thing they would always be asked was, "So what brought you to Houston?"
Almost every time, the E participant would go, "Well... (deep breath) we're here for a convention." "Oh what kind of convention?"
"Well... (another deep breath) we're all youth directors and will be bringing 30,000+ youth here this summer for our National Youth Gathering" (as they scream on the inside while thinking please don't think I'm a crazy person)
"Oh that's so cool!"
We were all scared to be ourselves. Sometimes I really hate talking about my job. There's been a time or two where I've just told people I'm a teacher to avoid the subject. I know every time I meet anyone and say I work in a church, I'm instantly flooded with questions. Some people are truly curious, while others are looking for a debate. I know I personally never want it to seem like I am trying to "convert" someone, and I think that's true for a lot of people throughout the ELCA. I will do my best to answer questions, but I get leery when people start with questions like "does your church think gay people go to hell?"
So one thing I'm going to try to do from now on is be more bold with these conversations. Jesus preached love and acceptance. I think that's pretty darn cool. I think it's time we do our part to take back the Christian narrative and focus it back on love.

Sorry I got a bit off topic. Back to Houston :)

At another one of the General Sessions, our speaker was Jamie Bruesehoff. She is known for her blog titled "I am totally *that* mom." Her husband is an ELCA pastor, and they with their 3 kids live in rural New Jersey. Their daughter, Rebekah, also happens to be 11 years old and transgender.

Jamie shares how their family went through this transition together. They always knew their daughter was different. Before coming out as transgender, their son would write things on his notebook like "Girls Rule!" He also loved the color pink, and eventually gave up on the boys section of target and found pure bliss in the newly explored girls section. Through all of this, they sought the help of a gender specialist, and discovered that Rebekah (formerly Benjamin) was transgender. She finally got to start living as herself at 8 years old.

My favorite story that Jamie shared was the dress dilemma. One year, Rebekah wanted to wear a dress for Easter Sunday. This would be the first time that Rebekah would ever wear a dress to church. As we all know, you can do one thing in the public world, but its a whole other issue to try it in the church. So Jamie and her husband tabled it. They wanted to support their child, but also didn't want to put her in harms way. They had no idea how the congregation would respond. Pastors kids have it hard enough, and transgender kids have it hard enough, much less a transgender pastor's kid.

Eventually, they let her wear the dress. They didn't want to hold her back, and wanted to let her just be herself. Jamie talks about all the joy that came from that Sunday morning. One congregant even noticed the huge boost of confidence that came with allowing Rebekah to be herself. He mentioned that before, she would be shy, hiding behind Jamie. Now, with that dress she was approaching all sorts of people, twirling and dancing to show off her new dress. Something so simple brought so much happiness and love.

If you want to hear more about Rebekah's story, you can watch the video below:

Sunday started off with worship. We had liturgy performed by Romantica and Ben Kyle, with a sermon from Bishop Michael Rinehart on the Road to Emmaus Story. Also, since I haven't mentioned this yet, all of the General Sessions gave us ALL THE FEELS. I don't think we had one session where they didn't make someone cry at some point. I know one of the most powerful parts for me was they set up grief prayer stations. These included stations for personal grief, grief in ministry, for creation, for injustice, and for Houston. You would to go as many stations as you wanted to and would write your prayer on basically a giant piece of confetti. So, once everyone wrote their prayers, we had our own prayers of intersession where each bundle of prayers where lifted up (via fan and giant glass tube. I apologize for the lack of picture. Imagine a giant T-Shirt gun for prayers, but much gentler). Just seeing all of our prayers, all the different colors floating through the room was pretty cool to see.

Then the rest of Sunday was for workshops. Over the day I attended one about bring confirmation home, then about youth-led VBS, and then one titled "A Case Study in Overcoming the Monochromatic Membership of the ELCA." While all were wonderful workshops that will influence my work here at Grace, this last one was the one I found the most motivating.

So I've mentioned before that the ELCA is the whitest denomination in ALL of American Christianity. We are 96% white. NINETY SIX! Even Missouri Synod is better than us (sorry LCMS friends). COME ON!

Our presenter, C.J. Clark is the executive director for Living Waters ministry in Michigan. He describes it as a mission that happens to have a camp, rather than a camp with a mission. The programs started basically just because he needed to fill beds. Camp was going to cost the same to run whether or not they were filled, so he thought he might as well just give them away. He connected with the local Lutheran Services organization and worked with them to get foster kids to come to camp for a week with no cost to them. He got the beds filled, but ended up expanding this idea to other organizations. His question was always "If we were to just give you a week of camp and let you do whatever you wanted, what would you?" and would then give them that week of camp. Now, one of the opportunities that has come from this is Bridge Builders. This camp works to create leaders within the ELCA, while also discussing the issues of race. The goal is that these campers will eventually become camp councilors, then camp leaders. Having this model has increased their staff diversity while also giving campers a great experience and creating leaders for the whole ELCA. It's proof that we don't have to be stuck at 96%.

So how does this impact Grace? How Living Waters created this camp was by working with local organizations. They changed the focus from what Living Waters wanted camp to be to what they could provide with their camp that other organizations wanted. We already have so many people at this church trying to reach out to our local community, we just need to keep our eyes and ears open to be able to help in any way we can. You never know when the spirit will inspire you.

Also, I just want to put in a plug for my friends who think that since they live in a small, white town, that they may not be able to work on the diversity issue at all. Check out your census stats. If your town has any sort of diversity, reaching out to the community so your church reflects your city or county could have a huge impact. For instance, Grace Lutheran is 97% white, while Champaign County is about 73% white. If we kept our current members, but changed to reflect the diversity in our own community, our active membership would increase by over a 30% (or over 100 people). And for those who have been pushing membership increase to also help with our stewardship campaigns, it could help our bottom line as well. If they reflect the average county income of a little over $46K a year, and they averaged 5% giving in their income, that would be and additional $230,000 for our budget. Not saying that would all automatically happen, or that we should see increasing our diversity as a way to increase our revenues, but its just some food for thought.

This weekend didn't hold back. We discussed the hard issues. We were honest about our brokenness - personally, communally, and nationally. The weekend was an emotional roller coaster including bearing our grief while also supporting one another with amazing love. There was learning about all different aspects of ministry including worship, VBS, family learning, and camp. The last two years I've left feeling more informed, supported, loved, and motivated that before I came.

Ministry can be really hard, so I'm thrilled that the ELCA not only has this Network set up to support one another, but that we also have the Extravaganza to come together to learn from each other, worship together, and just love on each other through everything. So thank you ELCA and Grace Lutheran Church for making this a great experience for me.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review of "The Trouble I've Seen"

Before I dive into what I love about this book, let me give you a little background on my relationship with racial justice. Also, I am a fairly affluent white woman, which means I rarely get to see the negative side of these issues. This also means I am not an expert on racial justice in any sense. What it does mean is that I am becoming more and more aware of the unwarranted privilege that I receive in abundance, and trying to find ways to make sure I don't get special treatment - that everyone has the ability to have the opportunities that I get every day.

I grew up in Des Moines, IA (and yes, Des Moines proper, not West Des Moines, Johnston, Ankeny, or any of that nonsense). Because of where my home is, I went to King Elementary for the first 3 years of elementary school, and then finish the last 3 at Perkins. King Elementary, named after Martin Luther King Jr, was expected to talk about civil rights and racial justice more than your average elementary school. Even to this day, I'm amazed at the lack of knowledge on the Civil Rights Movement and other events leading up to it present in my fellow Iowans. It just always made sense to me growing up why it was so important, that I couldn't understand why anyone else wouldn't put it as a critical piece of our education.

Continuing my education, I went to Callanan Middle School and Roosevelt High School. It's safe to say that being a white person at those schools, you were in the minority. That was never a problem. Honestly, I never thought about it until after I graduated and starting talking to more people who grew up outside of Des Moines. The vast amount of languages spoken in those schools is astounding. In both schools you really do get people from all walks of life. We had the wealthy kids from South of Grand, to the kids who lived closer to the school that didn't always have it as good.

In high school, since I was very involved at Windsor Heights Lutheran Church, I got the opportunity to take many mission trips to Jackson, Mississippi. These trips were probably the biggest catalyst to my passion in racial justice. Growing up, I was surrounded by diversity, and it was great! Racism was over, all the problems were solved, and life was good. When you go to a poor black city in the south, your opinion changes on that. The biggest lesson I learned that has stuck with me to this day was when two ladies were trying to open a coffee shop next to the church we worked with in Jackson. The black lady would constantly call banks, trying to get a loan for the shop, but was always denied. The white lady then called one of the same banks, with the same application, and was actually approved! Funny how that works.

Now recently, I've felt really empowered by a lot of things going on around me. The ELCA is starting to feel the counter current of #decolonizeLutheranism, my current church is involved with the community coalition, who has many goals including improving race relations in Champaign-Urbana, and you know, there's this little thing going around the country called #BlackLivesMatter and all the controversy surrounding the killings of unarmed black men and women, but that's a story for another day.

So, long story short, when I saw this book The Trouble I've Seen, I knew I had to read it. The ELCA is one of the whitest churches in America, at about 96% white according to Pew Research Center. Yikes. Even Missouri Synod is doing better than us (by 1% but still). This didn't make any sense to me. The ELCA is one of the most inclusive denominations out there, at least on paper. What's going wrong?

Well here are a few takeaways I got from this book:

#1 Race isn't really a thing. I mean, think about it. I had this problem growing up. In Des Moines, we had a large population of Bosnians come before/during/after the war. There was a common theme of "I'm not white, I'm Bosnian." This confused a lot of us. They were literally straight from Europe, where white people come from. If they weren't white, who is? (this was also middle school logic, so I apologize to anyone who doesn't like how 12 year old me thought. She was kind of naive). Now, it makes sense. Their skin was similar to mine, but they didn't feel like they quite fit in. Drew G. I. Hart makes a great point about this. Who gets to be white always changes, depending on how well it "helps the cause." Irish, Italians, Jews, and other "white" people sometimes don't make the cut. Even trying to define black or African-American can be confusing too. Not every black person in America has African decent, and not every person with African decent looks black. People from Morocco look white, but would technically be African-American if they moved here. Race doesn't make any sense, unless your white and get the benefits of it.

Now, I will put a disclaimer that I don't think having race is always a horrible thing that we have in society. We can use it to see things like black men are more likely to be imprisoned than white men. Is it a perfect system? No, but it at least gives us a way to see where the problems are a lead us to solutions. But, if you don't work for Gallop, maybe you just shouldn't focus on it.

#2 We all do a lot of racist things unknowingly. We can only help what is ingrained in us so much. I still catch myself getting nervous if I'm out in my own neighborhood and see a black guy approaching me. Now I know more than likely he's just out being in the area just like I am, but I'm still at the point where I have to remind myself of that, fighting what society has taught me.

Now on the flip side, I've also seen my privilege through unknowingly racist actions. For instance, when I went to Target, I went to try on clothes, but I had a basket with maybe one or two things in it. I asked if I should set it down before going in to try on the clothes, but the attendant told me, "no, I trust you." What? You don't know me, I thought. I would never steal anything, but she doesn't know that. But, that's one of the perks of being a young white woman in America. I seem trusting in our society.

Now, when we do things like this, does that make us a racist? Not necessarily. I would argue we all have a little racism in us because of how our society is currently constructed. Now, the issue is whether you embrace that racism and build on it, are apathetic to it, or try to fight it and change society.

#3 Assimilation is a big problem Hart makes many points about what he's had to learn about white culture in order to be successful in America. Think about it - literature is filled with white authors, the history we learn in school always has a Eurocentric bias to it. When you learn about African culture, its always either an elective, or a special chapter in the whole book. Most of the time, you can get through life without knowing about the history of black music, but you almost always need to know white, European history of music. Since whiteness is currently at the top of the racial hierarchy, white culture is what is what is the "norm," what we perpetuate. Us white folks don't notice it, because its what we're used to, and its all valuable information to us. But just like how a reporter innocently stated that Sam Querrey was the first American to reach Wimbledon semi-finals since 2009, we forget Serena Williams. The reporter was focused only on the male half of tennis, just like we focus on white culture and forget about all the other great and important things that go on in the world.

This overflows into church. Lutherans have a history of being of Northern European decent and being proud of it. Things like "You know you're Lutheran if you have green jello salad at every potluck." Even with the Reformation 500 coming up, we've been EXTRA German this year. Now don't get me wrong, being a German I love a good Oktoberfest and seeing other traditions carry on, but just because Luther was German doesn't mean we are ALL German. We expect people who come to our churches to buy into this tradition, and don't always make room for new ones.

A good example of this is Shrove Tuesday. Since I am a Midwestern German Lutheran, it was a shock when I first came to Champaign and didn't know what Shrove Tuesday was. I'm told it's a tradition from England full of pancakes and even sometimes jump roping and lots of other things, held the night before Ash Wednesday. I'm a card holding member of the Lutheran club, and even I didn't know what this was. I can't imagine what that would look like for someone outside of the club. Now I love my church, and I think its great that they have these traditions everyone loves. However, if we do something as simple as re-naming it to a Mardi Gras celebration, it would make a lot more sense to newcomers. I could be wrong, but who doesn't know about Mardi Gras?

Long story short, we do a lot of things in society and in church especially where we don't realize we are excluding people and their culture. We focus on the fact that we like what we're doing and its great that we don't always take the time to look at it from an outsiders perspective.


Sorry, this one can get me fired up.

But really, the whole point is to LISTEN. You may not understand someone else's story, but that doesn't make it any less valid. Like my Dad, he thinks the Packers are the greatest team in America. He's wrong. The last Superbowl proves that my Patriots are the best in America. That still doesn't make his passion for his team any less valid.

But we can make this point with a more extreme case. I had a friend that I grew up with. We both went to the same schools growing up, lived in the same neighborhood, similar family structure. I am now working in the church, while he died from a heroin overdose. How did that happen? Now, just because I have never even been around heroin, doesn't mean he only made dumb choices and that's how he got there. Who knows how that track started. Maybe he thought it would make him look cool, maybe he had more demons he had to deal with that we will ever know, and that was his only way to escape them. Somehow, things happen and tragedy follows. It's too simple to say he had all the same resources I did, so must have just been a bad kid. No. If you ask anyone, he was one of the funniest people you would ever meet. He was a great friend to every single person he knew. His story isn't less valid because him and I made different choices in life. He isn't worse or better because of his vices verses mine. It would be wrong to think otherwise.

It's easy to think this way when it comes to race, especially in an urban Midwest setting. "But I went to high school with guys like that, there's no reason they should be getting arrested more unless there was good reason for it," or "Why should they get more scholarships? I figured out how to pay for college on my own." Everyone has a different story, and different struggles. Just because you have different struggles doesn't make theirs any less real.

#5 Jesus was here for the outcast and oppressed, and we should be too. Our society keeps a lot of people down. Jesus never said, "pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that's what I did." Instead, when 5000 people show up, he finds a way to feed EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.

My favorite quote from this book was, "We are not seeking to merely be the church for the poor and oppressed... we hope to be the church of the poor and oppressed." I've never been to a church that didn't think helping the poor was a top priority, but I've been to many churches where there doesn't seem to be much variety in socio-economic status. Everyone is more than happy to lend a hand, but are you willing to open your doors, too?

I think same can be said for racial disparity. I would never classify any of the churches I've been to as "racist," but at the same time, the pews tend to look awfully white. That's why I think things like Decolonize Lutheranism is so important. First we need to recognize our own bias, that sometimes we lean on our Northern European heritage a little too much, which doesn't feel too welcoming to those who aren't of Northern European heritage. Does that mean we should stop singing A Mighty Fortress? By no means! But we need to be be conscious of those song selections, of our events and how we promote them, and how we truly connect with the community around us. Are we here just to help the community, or are we here to be a part of the community? Jesus is here for everyone, and the Lutheran church should be here for everyone, too.

So, overall, this is one of my new favorite books. I will warn people that this is not a light read. This should not be your first book when starting to understand race relations, especially in the church. He is not mean or condescending in this book, but he is very honest. Sometimes that honesty is hard for people to accept. He even shares how during one of his invitation-only meetings he had on race relations, a white woman found her way in anyways and was upset about the conversation going on around her. She thought she had a firm understanding on race relations, but was still very much a rookie. Don't be this woman. Go in with an open mind, and a willingness to learn and improve, and this book will definitely be worth your time.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

So you've been baptized - Now what?

Grace had a group of 19 youth, 2 young adults and 6 adult leaders go on a trip up to Wisconsin to spend some time at the Expeditions Unlimited camp. It was a great mix of people who had gone before, and first timers like myself. The theme for the week was baptism, focusing on things like sharing our faith with others, and what struggles we share, and what tools we have to support each other within our community.

Starting off, we had a nice long drive up to Boulder Lake Park in Wisconsin (I may have had a hard time finding exactly where the campground was...). BUT we all made it there! We got settled into our tents, and had a nice bonfire for the night. There, we did our evening worship and devotion, and even got to make s'mores. Once we got settled into our tents, it began to storm. Luckily, most of us stayed dry through the night, and some of us even managed to get some sleep!

Monday was our day for WWR (White Water Rafting). After breakfast, we had our morning worship and devotion. The theme for Monday was the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, thinking about how we share our faith with others, and of course - getting wet!

We got to the river, suited up, partnered up, and headed up to our starting location. We started off with two different rapids, first one being a big drop then going through a few more level (but tricky!) rapids. A few of us got stuck along the way to lunch. After making it through the first two, we stopped at a bank and had our first cliff lunch.

After lunch, we had our afternoon prayer and our 10 minutes of silence on the bank. Throughout the week, we had some pretty cool places to stop and think, but the river might be my favorite. To get everyone amped back up for rafting, we got to try body rafting. Basically, you float with "nose and toes" up and float down the rapid then swim to shore when you get through. It was much harder than it sounds, but it was so much fun!

We went through 3 more rapids through the afternoon, and even found some shallow water along the way to have a more relaxed float. That was juxtaposed by the final rapid, which fastest, longest, and most exciting rapid of them all. By then, we were all were spent (but very happy!) and ready to head down to Baraboo. We got back pretty late, so we ended our night with a quick prayer by the entrance and got everyone settled into our cabins for the night.

Tuesday was slotted for rock climbing. The theme for the day was John the Baptist, and finding our own road to Jesus. So, after breakfast, morning worship, and devotion, we headed out to Devil's Lake and tried a new spot to rock climb. We ended up at Elephant Rock, which gave us four different cliffs to climb on. We had lots of different climbers all morning, and I was very impressed with how well some members from our group did on all four cliffs. With all the climbing in the morning, some were ready for a new adventure in the afternoon. A few went on a hike around the lake, some came together to play games, and others couldn't get enough of the climbing.

That night, after MANY inquiries, we FINALLY went swimming in the lake. (If I had a dollar for every time I got asked if we were going to be able to go swimming, I probably could have paid for the whole trip 😊) But we had a great time at the beach! 

Then we made it back to camp and had a great bonfire for worship. This was also the first night we had time to do have small group discussions. All throughout the week we had AMAZING discussions within our small groups.
There was morning and evening on the 3rd day, and it was GOOD!

Wednesday was the day that got the most hype - it was the day of the high ropes course. The theme for the day was Jonah and how to deal with times where we don't trust God or get angry with God. 

The students started off with the low ropes/challenge course while the adults *silently* observed. It was a chance for them to solve the challenges on their own and see how well they can work together as a team between their two different groups. 

After lunch it came - the high ropes. Most of the students were extremely excited about this, while others were rather hesitant. I was all for Team Hesitation. For those of you who don't know, I have an extreme fear of bridges. I get pretty uncomfortable with some heights (as stated in a previous blog), but most of the time I can deal. Bridges, however, are a different story. Seeing as though a high ropes course is basically a series of bridges, I did not make it past putting both my feet on the first bridge. I was only one of 4 people out of the whole group that didn't go on the course, so I think overall we had a really good amount of participation. 

That night after dinner, we had our evening worship in the "BatCave" (the room below the dining hall). We had our second round of small groups that night as well, and continued to have great conversations with new groups.

To try to give everyone some down time to have to recover for all the activities that have happened throughout the week, we had movie night after small groups. The movie for the week was Evan Almighty. For those who haven't seen it, it's the sequel to Bruce Almighty (where Jim Carey is hilariously given God's powers to what it's really like to be God), and this time, Steve Carell is called to "change the world" and build an Ark. 

And it was morning and evening on the 4th day, and it was STILL GOOD!

Thursday we had some free time in the morning since we went to the International Crane Foundation in the afternoon. Some of us went canoeing in the morning, others stayed and played on the beach, while others got a chance to do some crafts. The theme for Thursday was Noah, and what we do when the people we look up to turn out to be not so perfect, and learning that we're not always perfect either, but our faith gives us tools to see God loves us despite our flaws.. 

So in the morning, I went with the canoers to go on Devil's Lake that morning. I don't think we could have asked for a more beautiful week to spend outside in Wisconsin. The group that stayed on shore had a great time playing spike ball, and others continued working on their awesome crafts. 

After lunch, we made our way to the International Crane foundation. We learned they are the only place in the world that hosts all 15 species of Crane, including the two that are native to North America. They do amazing work, trying to rebuild the crane population all over the world, doing research on breeding, habitats, migration patterns, and so many other things that we would never think of that affect these birds. It was a great opportunity to learn something new for the whole group.

When we got back, we had our final bonfire, which included roses, buds and thorns (like highs and lows for the day, which we tried to do every day) and also one rose for the whole week. There were many different week-long roses from the group, ranging from WWR to gaga ball. I was just really glad to get the opportunity to get to know a lot of our students that I normally don't get a lot of time with, or haven't been able to spend much time with over these last few months. 

Then Friday came, our final day of the trip. We had breakfast and our final worship and devotion that day. The theme for the day was discipleship, and how Jesus tells us to "Go and make disciples." The sending questions helped us think about what we do in order to follow Jesus, and what we do in order to help others do the same. 

Overall, this was an amazing week for everyone involved. I want to give a BIG thank you to all the adult leaders who came on this trip (I really can't thank them enough), and to all the students who decided to join us. We learned a lot about ourselves, each other, and what role Jesus plays in all of our lives. This is a great ministry we have at Grace. Thank you to all those who make it possible!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

24 Hour Famine

When I first arrived at Grace 2.5 months ago, one of the first requests I got was to have a 30 hour famine. The students were really excited by the idea, and from the conversations I had, it seemed like a strong tradition with the youth. I'll admit, I was a little leery at first. Spending 30 hours with students with no food didn't sound like fun for anyone involved. Hanger is a real thing, and if you add hormones to it... well I can only imagine.

But you give the people what you want right?

This year, we based the famine on the ELCA's Act 2Day 4 Tomorrow program. Normally, for a famine most groups will use World Vision's 30 hour famine. This is a great program, but being and ELCA church, it made sense to look at ELCA World Hunger as a resource and pull bible study tools filled with Lutheran theology. This included 3 different bible study sessions, looking at Matthew 25:31-46, Exodus 16, and Acts 4:32-37.

The other big thing we wanted to address was that this was a famine and not a fast. With the various diet restrictions within our youth and all the other things going on with their growing bodies, going a full day without eating didn't sound like the best plan. We still had 2 meals within the famine, and plenty of juice, crackers, and plumpynut in case anyone started feeling too hungry within the time frame. 

Friday night, our first activity was watching a Netflix documentary titled Living on One Dollar (I highly recommend this film for all. You can learn more about them here: The premise is a group for 4 college students travel down to rural Guatemala to see what it's like to live on a dollar a day for 8 weeks. This included looking into a life of a 12 year old who's family couldn't afford to send him to school so he had to go out and work in the fields with this dad instead. This really helped our students see how good they have it here. We had a lot of good discussion on seeing how we live our lives here compared to the children in Guatemala and other stories and experiences we've had with children in poverty within the U.S. and around the world. Unfortunately, no one wanted to take a field trip to Pena Blanca to try the experience ourselves.  

In this movie, most of their diet consisted of rice, beans, and bananas. This is what we based our diet on for the weekend and added tortillas and vegetables. We also based the way we distributed the food on the movie. The 4 men in the movie would have a raffle every day to see how much they would "make" that day, anywhere from $0-$9. With the students, their meals would either have 1, 3, or 5 items depending on which number they pulled. Luckily, for each meal the whole group came together to make sure each participant had enough to eat.

Saturday morning we did a Walk for Water simulation. This is a simulation that ELCA will often have available at events like the Youth Gathering. The premise of the simulation is to go through a course carrying a large container of water. Through the course you follow the story of someone who has difficulty getting clean water every day. For instance, Adele followed the story of a young girl in Indonesia who has to walk to get water every morning for her family, and normally misses school doing so. This girl broke her ankle on the trip, so Adele had to drag her foot behind her for the rest of the course to simulate that. There were many other obstacles and challenges throughout the course, with the final one being the clinic. Each participant was diagnosed with a disease associated with unclean drinking water, including malaria and diarrhea. 

Saturday afternoon we did a poverty simulation. Each student was given a family that they would have to feed for a week. They each had a packet describing their family, their living situation, and their budget for food for that week. I threw in a twist and gave them each their "children" in the form of stuffed animals borrowed from the nursery. There were 4 different stations involved in this simulation - the grocery store where they could purchase food, the food pantry where food was given out, DHS where they could apply for SNAP benefits, and DCFS that would be watching for abused or neglected children. They had about 30 minutes to collect all the food they needed for their family. Some went to DHS, but realized they would have to wait in a line that never seemed to move. Once it was their turn, they had a 20 sheet packet to fill out to apply. Even after doing all of that, some of the families didn't qualify for benefits. There were also limited resources at the food pantry. Then there was also the issue of the "baby snatching" DCFS finding neglected children and fining the family if they were taken into DCFS's care. After the allotted time, they had to go through what food they had and plan the meals for the week. Not one of the students had gotten all of the food they needed. They were all frustrated and didn't know how they could finish completing the meal plan. There were many refrains, of "I don't know how to do this." They realized that there are families that have to do this every day. They became more proud of our food pantry, seeing how hard it can be to make ends meet for a family struggling to get food on the table. 

The last thing we did was have a alternate version of Monopoly. Not only did I imply "Reinders rules," on the students, but there were other challenges each of them had to face. Andy couldn't buy any blue properties, Abby only started off with $100, Paul had to pay double rent and couldn't get free parking, Mikayla could purchase properties on half of the board, and I couldn't buy railroads or utilities. This was all to show that not everyone in life gets to start with the same privileges. Some start off much better than others, and each person has their own limitations and obstacles. We didn't get to finish the game (but lets be honest, how many games of Monopoly ever get finished?) but we played long enough for them to see how life just isn't fair sometimes. 

The overall theme of the famine was for everyone to see the problems that people all over the world have to face when it comes to poverty and hunger. It's not just in rural Africa, it's right here in our backyard. We can also help in many ways. As students, they can't all buy meals for people or donate to food pantry. They can, however provide their time and attention. Sometimes all a person needs is to know others see them. 

We've already got requests to do it again, so I encourage everyone who can to do it next year!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Response to "Losing Faith - Finding it "

Today I stumbled upon an article in Living Lutheran titled "Losing faith - finding it" and was immediately drawn in. Pastor Karen Olson talks about her struggles after suffering a seizure. "I didn’t sense God’s presence—just a bleak absence. I couldn’t pray through Epiphany, other than those public prayers I made as a pastor. I couldn’t stomach texts that proclaimed hope," she writes.

Just a bleak absence. 

Before this, I haven't seen anyone who gets it. I know there are people out there who have experienced similar things, but it's not really something discussed openly. For anyone who knows me, I'm not going to go out of my way to be vulnerable anyways.

Lent's always been a time to reflect on struggles, shortcomings, and suffering. I have students struggling to decide where to go to college next year. I know there are other people in the congregation who are struggling to just get by. We all have our thing.

But this bleak absence - it happens, and probably more than what people realize.

I had my fair share of tough times. In college I became a statistic and completely changed my worldview. Even though my situation wasn't uncommon, I felt alone. I didn't know who I could trust anymore.

Then the next year, I was told I was going to need surgery, ending my soccer career. I wasn't the star by any means. I didn't even get any minutes (but at least I can say I never let one goal by me in my college career.) But it was bigger than that. Soccer has always been my outlet, and it got ripped out from under me.

A few months later, my best friend got arrested. My heart broke for him. I felt helpless being hours away. There was nothing I could do to help, even though he was always there for me at the drop of a hat.

Then the facebook posts came. People can be cruel. I always brag about how Roosevelt High School has been filled with welcoming people, and is a safe space for just about anyone. But then, these people I would use as an example of this kindness, ripped him to shreds.

It got bleak for me. I would stay in my room and sleep for most of the day. I barely put any effort into my classes. I refused to do anything in the campus chapel. I felt abandoned. It was bad enough to throw things at me, but now my friends were going down with me. Unfortunately, he wasn't the only one. I had a twisted bonding experience with another friend after she was hospitalized after having suicidal thoughts as she battled with her own depression.

My world was crumbling around me.

I got out of Wartburg as fast as I could. I should've taken a semester or two off to get my barrings, but I knew I would never return if I did. I ended up graduating a semester early, which was more like me trying to get the race over with rather than trying to actually complete it.

Then the unimaginable happened. I lost him. Just as I was starting to crawl out of my hole, I got shoved back in. His world collapsed on him first. He didn't think he could make it out.

I selfishly thought "he left me."

Bleak doesn't even scratch the surface of this one.

Eventually, life started getting more "normal." I got some of my old friends back and made some new ones. I started playing soccer again. I started trying new things again. And then, I finally got my foot in the door for the career I always wanted, youth ministry.

Now, I'm sure it seems weird that I would still stick with it. Believe me, it was weird for me, too. Fortunately, no matter how much my faith got knocked down, I still had my foundation. I could never find a good reason to truly abandon my faith.

And thank God for that. Being roped back in has been what truly has made my life feel normal again. I was doing what I love. I was validated, that I wasn't crazy for working towards this goal my whole life. I was able to go back to the community that made me feel home, feel loved.

We don't take enough time to share our own struggles. That's what church is for. We don't go to show we're perfect Christians. We go because we're sinners and we need to be forgiven. We go because we have burdens we need Jesus to take for us. We go because we need to know we can still be whole even in our brokenness. Don't be afraid to be broken. 

Read the article here: Losing faith - finding it

Thursday, February 16, 2017


This past Sunday was my first youth group after officially joining the staff. I was lucky enough to have a trip to Urbana Boulders as my first experience. So how Boulders is set up, is that it's basically rock climbing, but the walls are shorter so you have no harness and thick mats at the bottom for you to fall on. This was my first time doing such a venture, so I was excited. I was mostly excited because I am terrified of heights, and the walls looked doable.

That changed when I started climbing.

I have gotten much better with heights as I've gotten older, but the fear has never fully subsided. There's one instance in particular that describes my typical reaction pretty well. Growing up, I went to Riverside Lutheran Bible camp every summer. By the time I was in middle school, I felt like a pro every time I went up to Story City. However, one summer, my cabin took a trip to a new part of camp I had never seen before. It was a shock to me, finding new trails I had never been down before. It felt pretty cool, like I had been in on this secret that only the pros get to know. Then we came to the bridge. I was terrified. It was a rope bridge that looked like it had been there for decades. Images flashed through my head of the boards breaking under my feet, the bridge swinging uncontrollably, and me falling all the way down. Granted, it was just a small creek (or maybe a small part of the Skunk River? who knows) but it might as well have been the Mississippi to me. I was not going over that bridge. I began panicking and crying in protest. Eventually we left and found somewhere new to take our adventure.

Fear is not a feeling that sits well with me. Those who know me, know I like to act tougher than I am. I like to control every part of my life that I can. Fear does not collaborate with those ideas very well. There are lots of things I am not scared of. I'm perfectly fine around snakes, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, I can get up and move 6 hours away from home without knowing anyone. Fear is not a normal emotion for me.

So here I am, climbing with youth from my new church for the first time. When I started, I was confident. These walls aren't even that high. I've probably climbed ladders this high before. Then my feet leave the ground. My support is on these holds and my heart starts to race. Are we sure this isn't too high to go up without a hardness? All in the meantime, most of these students have gone up and down multiple routes and testing their limits.

Paul was one of these students who was particularly agile on the wall. He didn't understand my fear. He knew I could make it up and down these walls. "Why are you climbing if you're so scared?" he asked. "Because sometimes you have to do things even when you're scared," I told him. I didn't even realize what I was saying until after I said it.

Eventually I got the hang of it. I was still a little petrified every time I got to the top of the wall. Some of the guys there climbed up and stayed up by the ceiling for a good chunk of the night. I don't know how they could be so comfortable doing that.

But you know what? I tried something new on Sunday, something I never thought I would be comfortable with. Sometimes is good to try something you're scared of. I'm glad these students are brave. Even the ones who had never tried climbing before were impressive that night.

This group is going to be going through a big transition. The congregation is still exploring what is means to have new leadership after their pastor for many years retired. Now I have a newly made position that includes focusing on youth ministry. There's going to be lots of new thing's we're all going to have to try. There are going to be some things we're going to be scared of. There are going to be some things we're not going to want to do. But I believe in the end we will all be better for it. We've got a great group of students, we've got a great congregation behind them, we've got a great staff trying to bring it all together, and we've got a great friend and King in Jesus. How can you not be excited when you have all of that?

Peace and Blessings,
Caitlyn Reinders