By Cindy Novak
The excitement surrounding the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering continues to build as youth, mentors and church leaders from around the country prepare to attend “citizens with the saints” in the coming days.
And as they pack, double-check itineraries, and gear up for the trip to New Orleans, a contingent of nearly 500 from the ELCA Northeastern Minnesota Synod already has arrived in the Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., area to practice discipleship through Mission Possible, which has the theme: “Loving like Jesus.”
They will participate in service projects, fellowship activities and lively worship as part of the 2012 synod journey prior to the Gathering.
“The whole business of loving like Jesus isn’t about running around doing good,” says Thomas Aitken, bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Minnesota Synod. “Jesus was constantly interrupting the flow of things to lift up a child, to touch and heal someone, and to break away and listen to other people’s sorrow, pain and joy. We are trying to rediscover and develop that sense of the gospel, which is all relational: people first, projects second. We want to be changed by it.”
“Every one of us is connected,” Aitken adds. “So what are we going to learn from our sister down in Biloxi whom we’ve never met before? She is our sister. What could we learn from our brother in New Orleans who is ultimately related in Christ? We can’t talk about a 16-year-old Lutheran from Minnesota without also talking about a 16-year-old from New Orleans. We have a connection given to us by the Almighty. To be changed by that is huge.”
Aitken looks forward to having youth share their experiences with their congregations, through temple talks, confirmation classes or newsletter articles, when they return, he says.
“That is a way of saying you are important — you are leaders,” he continues. “You went on this trip and had incredible experiences. Tell us what you’ve learned so we can learn from you. What did you learn from somebody in New Orleans? What pain, sorrow or hope did you hear from their lips?”
This will be the seventh ELCA Youth Gathering for Marty Hancer, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, in Princeton, Minn., and a member of the Servant Learning Team for Mission Possible.
“I love the fact that this year there is an emphasis on building some depth and maturity of faith,” he says. “There will be a discipleship day, peacemaking day and justice day. They will be honing in on ancient faith practices that kids will want to be immersed in now and into adulthood.”
And what does Marty hope for this year’s Gathering? “That the kids discover the joy in giving of themselves, in seeing God’s love in the diversity of people and the joy of seeing God’s work in them,” he says. “That they realize God can use ‘even little old me’ to serve, to welcome and to love.”
“I’m convinced kids are looking for more than a 10-day vacation,” he adds. “They are looking to be challenged and to be shown a way of digging deeper in their own faith practices and life.”
Cindy Novak is a member of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill. She lives in Lisle, Ill., with her husband, David, and her children, Sam and Emily.