If you ask many of the young people who attended the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans their favorite part of the experience, the answers might surprise you.
Sure, the zip line was fun, and dancing along with the likes of Agape, Switchfoot and Rhema Soul is exciting, but what really made an impact?
“The guy with the dreads!”
“The sarcastic Lutheran!”
“She was funny!”
“She had a good story.”
“She had tattoos!”
For many at the Gathering, the speakers who shared their stories nightly at the Superdome inspired them in ways they weren’t expecting.
The speakers came from all walks of life with a variety of messages — from college freshman Greg Von Wald, who spoke about his experience at the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering, to “the sarcastic Lutheran” Nadia-Bolz Weber of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver to Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who talked about her work that helped end the civil war in Liberia.
For Chad Hanifeld of New Life Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Mich., author Shane Claiborne, also known as “the guy with the dreads,” was the most memorable.
“Shane was my favorite because he was just really easy to relate to, and he was really inspirational. He was very funny,” Chad says.”Just that he gave up so much of his time and of his effort and that he was willing to go to jail and everything for what he believes and stand up for what is right.”
Shane told the 33,000 young people in attendance the story of how he got arrested in Philadelphia after the city passed an ordinance banning the feeding of homeless people on city property.
He urged the youths to be “extremists for love” saying, “The questions we’re gonna be asked are, ‘When I was hungry did you feed me? When I was homeless did you let me in? When I was in prison did you visit me?’ The test of our faith is going to be how it works itself out in compassion and love.”
Chad wasn’t the only one who was moved by what Shane had to say.
Students at First Lutheran Church in Williston, N.D., saw similarities between what happened in Philadelphia and what’s happening in their own hometown.
“We’ve been in an oil boom for the past three years,” says Ben Loven, who is the associate pastor at First Lutheran. “Our population has probably tripled. We have very low unemployment, high wages. It’s drawn people from all around the country. We have a tremendous shortage of housing. Many people are forced to sleep in cars or campers or just sleep outside.”
Ben says that because of the people camping out in Williston, police have been given the authority to remove anyone sleeping in parks.
“I asked my kids what they thought of the speaker,” he shares. “I said, ‘Well, this is what just happened in Williston,’ and a couple of the boys said, ‘We want to get arrested!’” Ben laughs. “I said, ‘Let’s not be too hasty.’”
Ben prayed with the students about it, and before they left New Orleans, they discussed what they wanted to do. The youths decided they wanted to raise awareness about homelessness in Williston just like Shane had in Philadelphia.
They’ll be “talking to the adults in our community, our parents, the leaders in the city, trying to encourage them to find a place for a homeless shelter in Williston,” says Ben.
The young people were also planning a booth at their town’s block party to discuss the issue of homelessness with their community.
Both Ben and his youth group hope that they’ll be able to use their experiences at the Youth Gathering to bring some positive change back to their hometown and to continue practicing this year’s theme, Love Like Jesus, long after they’ve returned home.