With more than 30,000 youth and adults from across the ELCA, ELCA World Hunger staff were in Houston, Texas, last week for the 2018 National Youth Gathering. The event is a great opportunity for youth and leaders to learn about the many ministries of the ELCA and our partners. This year, as part of ELCA World Hunger’s Global Farm Challenge, youth had the chance to support ELCA World Hunger’s accompaniment of farmers around the world by offering their donations, glimpse a village in Malawi through a 360-degree virtual reality video, and learn about some of the challenges and opportunities smallholder farmers face through the “Field Experience” track. In this interactive track, participants followed the story of a smallholder farmer and tried their best to bring one of four crops – ginger, corn, citrus trees, or rice – from seed to market. ELCA World Hunger’s interns were a critical part of the event, helping to build and staff the track, guiding youth through the “Feld Experience,” and sharing their own passions and wisdom with participants. Below, Jasmine, Hannah, and Petra share some of their reflections on the Youth Gathering – including the ways that the event shapes staff who work it as much as it shapes the youth who attend.

“I finally was able to realize what being Lutheran and being Church meant, and it was something truly special.”

This summer I had the privilege of attending the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, Texas. While I thought I was ready to welcome the Youth to our space Thursday morning, I soon realized that nothing could have prepared me for welcoming 30,000 youth! The experience was truly something indescribable, never have I ever worked so hard, stood on my feet so long and felt like I was apart of something so meaningful.

Nervous at first about how the field experience would go—especially the section my fellow interns and I put together—I easily became more comfortable in the space, allowing for me to focus on what was truly important about what was going on around me. What was so impactful and enlightening about this experience had nothing to do with how perfectly I worded each sentence, or how quickly we got the crops from the finish line back to the beginning of the track, it was the small talk, and the connections being made throughout and seeing/ recognizing that over 30,000+ Lutherans were coming together from all over the U.S to celebrate God and grow in faith.

Every morning I was greeted by Petra R. and Hannah N. we would walk down to breakfast debrief for the day then head to the event. Entering this trip with them I never expected our relationships to grow how they did but I guess when you spend nearly 24 hours a day with someone that naturally happens. We all became one another’s support and when I, being the grandma intern got too tired they helped push me out of my comfort zone by encouraging me to attend a mass gathering on Saturday, which I greatly thank them for. Not being a huge fan of speakers and talks I was initially turned off by the idea, but once I was there I realized it was so much more than that, it didn’t matter exactly what was being said on stage, it was the feeling of being in a room with 30,000+ people who all believe in the same thing as you. The theme for Saturday was Hope and I could feel and see hope all around me as I sat amongst the future generations of our country. I finally was able to realize what being Lutheran and being Church meant, and it was something truly special.

I am beyond grateful that I was able to attend the Youth Gathering both because it allowed me share with youth and others ELCA World Hunger’s mission and field experience, as well as it showed me hope for the future and presented a feeling of belonging I had never felt before. I can confidently say that this experience was like no other and will stick with me for a lifetime.

-Jasmine Bolden

“I saw young people empowered to be the leaders that this church needs…”

When I was selected to be one of ELCA World Hunger’s interns, I had no idea what I was getting into. However, I did know that I would have the opportunity to attend the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering, so I was super excited for what the summer would hold. This trip held an important significance for me, as I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. Welcoming 31,000 youth and their leaders to my hometown and educating them about the impact of ELCA World Hunger and the Global Farm Challenge was such a cool experience, even amidst the stifling heat of Houston (which you can never get used to).

The theme of the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering was “This Changes Everything,” and from the moment I first arrived in the Interactive Learning space in Houston, I found that to be true. I met people from all over the United States and the Caribbean, and I like to think I showed them a thing or two about the challenges farmers face around the world.  I even had the privilege of guiding Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton through a section of the “Field Experience”—she could carry a 41.5-pound jerry can of water better than some of the youth!

In the Mass Gatherings, thousands of youth around me were enlivened by the speakers and the messages of hope and grace they brought to my generation. The speakers reflected the theme verse of the event in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 NRSV). As you know, the youth of this vibrant church are a gift from God, and they were lifted up to be an important part of their churches not only in the future but now. Throughout the Youth Gathering, I saw young people empowered to be the leaders that this church needs, and I am so excited that ELCA World Hunger could be a part of this important faith formation event.

In the last Mass Gathering, the normally dark NRG Stadium was filled with light. The assignment for all the youth was to let someone important to them know that they were loved by sending them a text message with the note “May God hold you in the grip of grace.” After they sent the message, they were to turn their phone flashlights on. Quickly, the entire stadium became as bright as the noonday as thousands of people throughout the United States and the world were told that they were loved by the next generation of Lutheran leaders. After attending this gathering, I am filled with hope for what the church will look like moving forward.

-Hannah Norem

“…this is what it takes to create a just world where all are fed.”

Beautiful chaos. Everything God-blessed, fast-paced, brightly colored and abundantly emotional— a light sprinkling of buzzwords that only begins to scratch the surface of the ELCA National Youth Gathering. Every three years, an inconceivable amount of sweat, tears, and hope breathes life to this event. Though I believe few people are blessed with having a grip on this whirlwind of an experience due to its sheer magnitude, I thought I had a pretty good idea after attending two. I easily recall the countless post-church potluck lunches, car washes, and wreath sales that brought us ever-closer to our financial goal of affording the Gathering. What I hadn’t realized was the equal anticipation felt by the staff, volunteers, and partners planning the event. Excitement, nervousness, expectation, and anticipation hummed around the office long before our arrival, for everything ELCA World Hunger’s part in the event would be. Everything I got to hear, see, and have a hand in bringing to fruition, though, was just a tiny part of the entire event. The massive floorspace we would curate was but a planet in the entire solar system of NRG Center activities, and a tiny-but-mighty speck in the galaxy of events participants would encounter in the week.

Rather than humbling, this realization was enlivening. It brought urgency to pouring ourselves into ELCA World Hunger’s area, ensuring it precisely and accurately reflected all the learning points we prayed groups would grasp. Despite my hoarse throat and empty stomach, I was committed to making my piece of ELCA World Hunger’s “Field Experience” meaningful, fun, and enriching for each group. This is the first and only time these folks that stood before me got to see the space. This was the time they had to learn about what I staunchly believe is one of the best examples of God’s work in this church and the world.

What I pray they carry home is the sentiment of injustice behind the stories they heard, and allow it to fuel action. The participants in the track each followed stories of farmers facing hunger, and in the track, they took on the voices of the farmers – and added their own excitement or frustrations to the mix. “My son is sick!” one girl screamed. Another, “I get to ride a bike!” Or, most often heard, “Aw man, I have to carry my crops?!” These were only a few of the reactions after reading how the “drought” affected each group’s “crops.” The track was a great opportunity for the youth at the Gathering to hear about experiences of others around the world – experiences that may differ from their own – and to be inspired to act.

Just how different would the world look if we each took the time to learn about other’s experiences in the world, what this means for everyone as a global community, where our Church stands in it all, and how God is calling us to respond to injustice and need? Asking these questions and creating avenues for people to explore them—this is what it takes to create a “just world where all are fed.”

-Petra Rickertsen