When the 2009 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s National Youth Gathering convened in New Orleans, Mayor C. Ray Nagin brought greetings to the gathering. “We have many groups who have come to see about us and do special things, but we have never had a group like the Lutherans do what you have done,” he said.
Nagin recalled the words of poet Maya Angelou that the best time to see a rainbow is when the sky is half dark and half sunny. Looking across the tens of thousands of Lutheran youth wearing brightly colored t-shirts, Nagin added, “I see your colors, your t-shirts. You are our Katrina rainbow. God bless you.”
That rainbow of hope reappeared to the people of New Orleans July 18-22, 2012 when 33,309 Lutheran youth and their adult leaders rekindled their relationship, a relationship that began three years ago.
Why go back to New Orleans? According to Heidi Hagstrom, director of the ELCA Youth Gatherings, the answer is simple. “God is not done with us here.”
For the past 25 years, the ELCA has been deeply committed to the faith formation of its teenagers, namely through ELCA Youth Gatherings – the largest event organized by the 4.2 million-member church.
“It was my goal for young people to return to their congregations as leaders, demonstrating what they’ve learned in New Orleans and possibly igniting the whole congregations’ imagination for mission in the world,” Hagstrom said.
Even though it has been seven years since Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans numb with shock and disbelief, much work still remains to be done. This was the first time in many, many years that the event returned to a city for two consecutive gatherings.
Once again South Dakota had more youth attending than any other state – 1,400 in all.
The theme of the 2012 gathering was “Citizens with the Saints” based on Ephesians 2:14-20. The Lutherans did not come to cheer on the Saints football team, but put their faith into action in a city that has persevered through one of the biggest natural disasters in the United States. The theme also blends the rich faith history, diverse cultures and arts of New Orleans with the communion of saints that is present whenever and wherever God’s people gather.
The 2012 gathering was big and memorable. The youth got wet, had fun and were citizens with the saints.
Two huge events of the gathering were the mass worship services each evening at the Mercedes Benz Superdome – the largest indoor sporting venue in the world, and major rain. Nightly worship is always a highlight and this year was no exception. Many youth come from churches that worship weekly with one hundred members or less. To worship alongside 33,000+ was indescribable for many. “It was an awesome experience to gather with that many youth each and every night,” commented Cole Swartz, who also attended the 2009 gathering.
And then there was the rain, the opening night, the next day, night, day. After the opening gathering, no one was allowed to leave the Superdome for nearly an hour due to a massive storm pounding the area. This experience was for some, New Orleans history 101. Many New Orleans residents sought shelter in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina, the exact same place the youth stayed to wait out the storm. “It was hard to imagine that thousands of people who lost their homes lived here in the Superdome after the hurricane,” commented Brooke Fawcett.
But the 33,000 soggy Lutherans were determined. They went, they learned and they practiced peacemaking, discipleship and justice – the three core practices of the gathering.
The triennial gathering was again totally devoted to service. For three of the five days of the gathering, about 11,000 ELCA youth and adults donned orange t-shirts and were dispersed throughout New Orleans, engaging in nearly 400 service opportunities that ranged from painting the interior of an entire high school to rebuilding community libraries to helping restore swamplands to reading and playing with children. As one of the service groups got ready to leave, they saw tears in the eyes of the children with whom they had interacted. It had meant so much to the children to have a group of youth share their time and love and take them away from the constant violence that surrounds their daily lives.
The ELCA youth were also inspired by worship and Bible study led by 60 of the ELCA’s 65 synod bishops. The youth were moved by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of House for All Saints and Sinners in Denver, who shared her personal story of overcoming addiction and her love for the ELCA.
The Rev. Andrena Ingram, pastor of St. Michael Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, shared her story of living with HIV, and anti-bullying activist Jamie Nabozny asked youth to think about the things they say in their everyday lives that might have an effect on others.
The church presented the gospel using razzle-dazzle pyrotechnics and colorful video technology designed to grab the youths’ attention. Huge screens spanned the dome flashing everything from song lyrics to the Youth Gathering theme: citizens with the saints.
There was also time in the busy schedule for the youth to do some sightseeing and explore the cultures of New Orleans. The Miller group toured the Destrehan Plantation which was established in 1787 and remains the oldest documented plantation home on the lower Mississippi Valley. Wandering among the authentic buildings on the plantation after the tour, they found themselves immersed in the rich history of Louisiana with a better understanding of what it was like to live in another time, when French was the language and the white gold of sugar drove the economy.
Another afternoon they visited the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and saw sea life native to the area and then watched “Hurricane on the Bayou” at the IMax Theatre. It was filmed shortly after Hurricane Katrina and depicted the events that transpired. They also took a city tour and visited the famous French Quarter, above-ground cemeteries and saw where the levee breached during Hurricane Katrina causing all of the destruction to the city of New Orleans.
The gathering concluded with a closing Eucharist service Sunday morning with the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He told the youth, “you are about to go home. You are not leaving the Holy Spirit behind in New Orleans. The Spirit is going with you. The Spirit will give you power to share the good news that God has brought down the walls of hostility. We are no longer sojourners but citizens with the saints. Go now, the world is waiting for you.”
Plans are already underway for the 2015 gathering which will be held in Detroit, Michigan.