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.
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.