Reflections on the ELCA Youth Gathering

Posted on July 24, 2015 by Ryan P. Cumming

Ryan Cumming, Elysssa Salinas & Anna Smith

MIVES in the D

Ryan P. Cumming

I went to Detroit with 360 pool noodles, a three-seater latrine, a bag of tools, and a debriefing script, all to help make ELCA World Hunger’s Walk for Water a meaningful experience for the youth and adults who passed through our space.  The other items got used, but several times, the script was tossed aside as I listened to fellow Lutherans’ stories of their own water challenges, especially from California – dry wells, dangerously low lakes, disappearing streams.  I was happy to share with them the story of ELCA World Hunger.  But in hearing their stories and learning about their concerns, I learned as much about the connections between faith, water and hunger as I had to offer them.  Sometimes, we speak and sometimes, we listen.

Our work as a church is rooted in accompaniment, walking together with one another.  The values which inform accompaniment are mutuality, inclusivity, vulnerability, empowerment and sustainability.  We see ourselves as mutual partners creating inclusive tables where everyone involved feels safe enough to be vulnerable and guided in their own empowerment so we can shape long-lasting, sustainable relationships.  This is not just a method but an expression of who we are in relationship to each other and to God.  And it starts with listening.

In another series of conversations last week, this time with youth from Grace in Action in Southwest Detroit, I discovered that no matter how full our team packed boxes for the Gathering (and trust me, they were FULL), we could never bring enough to Detroit to match what the city and its people had to offer us.  Listening to these young people, you can get a sense of what it means to be in the midst of crucifixion and resurrection.  They have no illusions about the challenges their city faces.  If they ever forget, the national media will remind them.  But they also have a rich understanding of their own role in the renewal of Detroit.  Much has been said of Detroit’s recovery after the bankruptcy and leadership of their state-appointed emergency financial manager, but listening to young Detroiters, I found a clear sense that this resurrection did not begin top-down.  It began on the streets and sidewalks, in alleys and garages with individuals and families refusing to believe that Detroit would remain always in its own Good Friday.

I was also reminded last week what it means to be church together.  Sometimes, church looks like people standing and singing.  Sometimes it looks like people praying together.  Sometimes, church looks like a community working together to install a well for clean water.  Sometimes, church looks like 30,000 young people painting, cleaning, and building.  And sometimes church looks like young people from Southwest Detroit selling shirts they have designed with symbols of pride in their city, on a street corner near Cobo Center.

Those of us who traveled to Detroit – staff, partner organizations, volunteers, youth, leaders and so on – brought much to the city, and the media coverage of this massive event lifted up the hard work ELCA youth were part of in various neighborhoods.  But in Cobo Center and in a cramped hotel room with young people from Southwest, I was reminded the importance of accompaniment, the importance of listening and looking not for the gospel we think we bring but for the gospel that is being lived out already, for the presence of God in communities.  We brought a word of grace and hope – a “gospel” – to the city of Detroit, but not because the city was lacking in either.  There is a gospel being lived in the Motor City, as sure as there is a gospel being lived in California, Cameroon, Indonesia, or wherever we find people expressing resurrection hope in the midst of crucifixion.  We did not serve or teach or give or provide.  We accompanied and were given the chance not to bring God to Detroit, or to bring the good news to those who hunger and thirst, but to bear witness to what God is already doing, to be part of the good news already at work among our God’s chosen.  It was clear – from the dynamic speakers, the structure of the event itself and more –  that “Rise Up Together” was not a command we obeyed, nor a directive the ELCA proposed.  It was an invitation to which we responded, to be part of what God is doing in Detroit.  And we came away with more than we had to offer.

Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D., is program director of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger.  He can be reached at Ryan.Cumming@ELCA.org.

 

Worms, Diarrhea, and Malaria, Oh My!

Elyssa Salinas

The 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering last week has been marked on my calendar since my first week working for the ELCA, but I still could not fathom the scope of this event. I was confused in meetings when we talked about noodle forests and jelly bean medicine; I had never been to a youth gathering, so I was not able to comprehend the scope of this event.
The Walk for Water allowed participants to simulate the experience of many people around the world who do not have ready access to water. My base for the event ended up being in the clinic area of the track itself, which was about three-quarters of the way through the experience. The participants carried five-gallon jerry cans that weighed 41.5 pounds when full. On each of the jerry cans was a symbol telling them if they got a waterborne illness, such as malaria, diarrhea or worms. Then they would need to stop at the clinic to learn about their disease.

clinic 1.jpg

I worked in the worms (ascariasis) and diarrhea area where I talked about the causes and effects of these two water-related illnesses. The youth would sit on a latrine, if diagnosed with diarrhea, and try to spot the clean water from four different jars, if diagnosed with intestinal worms.

Clinic 2.jpg

In the activity related to worms, there were two clear water jars and two that looked contaminated. When the youth or adult would pick the clear water jar as clean one, I would inform them that the water contained  bacteria or a parasite that could make them sick. Instead, it was the orange-colored water that was safe to drink because it had been treated with an iodine solution. This demonstration made us all consider the reality of water across the world, and the serious risks contaminated water presents.

Clinic 3.jpg

When participants saw a square drawn on their jerry cans, I would invite them to sit on the latrine because they had diarrhea! There was a lot of nervous laughing, especially from the youth, because here in the United States diarrhea is an illness associated with embarrassment but not death. The truth is that diarrhea is one of the leading causes of death in children five years and younger.[1] This “laughing matter” kills 760,000 children every year.[2] In order to help the participants gain perspective on this number, I compared it to the population of Detroit, which is fewer than 700,000 people.[3]  Mouths would open wide, gawking at the often-deadly reality of diarrheal diseases. Our work through partners and companions is not just about helping people get access to water, but also helping them access education and resources to prevent water-related diseases like worms and diarrhea.

In the middle of our space was a baptismal font fashioned out of wood crates and a metal bucket meant to be a sacred space to remind us of God’s love. Yet after this week I believe that water is sacred, whether it stands in a font or comes home in jerry can. Water is always a sacred space.

Elyssa Salinas is program assistant of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger. She can be reached at Elyssa.Salinas@ELCA.org.

 

We Must Continue to Rise Up Together

Anna Smith

Growing up in the ELCA, I always wanted to attend the ELCA National Youth Gathering. When the time came in high school for me to attend, my congregation ultimately made the decision to forego the Youth Gathering in place of continuing with our annual mission trip. So you can imagine my excitement when I found out that I was selected to be the ELCA World Hunger Education Intern and that my “duties” included attending the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. I was set to attend my first Youth Gathering as a twenty-year-old!

I took on the Youth Gathering in full force. I wanted to take it all in and not miss a thing. Although I spent most of my time at ELCA World Hunger’s Walk for Water space, I was still able to attend the events at Ford Field almost every single night. I was also given the opportunity to speak to 500 youth from Northwest Wisconsin at my synod’s “Proclaim Story” day. After much contemplation about what exactly I wanted the youth to take away from my story, I eventually decided to speak about the place where I have felt the closest to God: Bible camp. My whole story centered on a quote from the former program director at the camp I worked at for three summers, Luther Point Bible Camp. Jesse Weiss would always remind the campers, “God doesn’t just live here at camp, God goes out with you.” It is so easy to see God at work each and every day at camp, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t working just as hard outside of the camp world. I shared this sentiment because at an event like the Gathering, many youth experience a similar high point in their relationship with God. I wanted to share with them that it doesn’t end here in Detroit.

I certainly witnessed a lot of moments of God at work in Detroit. While working the Walk for Water I was in awe as I watched incredibly athletic youth be humbled as they struggled to carry the 41.5 pound jerry can and realize that some people’s lives are far more difficult than their own. I also saw some youth finish in tears after they could barely complete one lap, let alone go the full 37 laps to reach the average distance some women and girls must travel to collect water. Those tears and the deep empathy shown for our sisters and brothers around the world were certainly glimpses of God.

Then there was Ford Field. To witness 30,000 youth cheering at the top of their lungs at callsfor change and justice was simply breathtaking. As I heard the roar when my colleague Mikka McCracken  said with confidence, “I believe it is possible to end poverty and hunger,” it was then that I knew this church and these youth WILL be a source of change and a beacon of justice.

After the Gathering in Detroit, we can’t just return to life as usual. Those “God sightings” cannot fade to distant memories. The overall theme of the Gathering was Rise Up Together. We did this every day in Detroit by bearing burdens, building bridges, breaking chains and bringing hope. I call my fellow attendees to practice what we learned at the 2015 gathering: that we find the issues that we are passionate about and that we never stop seeking God and continuing to do God’s work. The Gathering’s last day in Detroit was not the end; it was merely the beginning as we were sent to continue to Rise Up Together and never stop.

Anna Smith is an ELCA World Hunger intern working with Hunger Education this summer. She is can be reached at Anna.Smith@ELCA.org

 

[1] World Health Organization: Diarrhoeal Disease. April 2013. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs330/en/ (accessed July 23, 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] United States Census: Detroit (city), Michigan. May 29, 2015. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/26/2622000.html (accessed July 23, 2015).

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