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Scenes from a Street Car: Created to be Disciples

Saturday, July 20 – Created to Be Disciples

Today was our closing worship for the 2024 ELCA Youth Gathering, and what a week it has been! This Gathering, filled with deep and meaningful conversations, laughter, and the Spirit’s palpable presence, has truly transformed us all.

Throughout the week, we’ve heard from incredible speakers who each brought something unique and necessary to our hearts. Walking through the streets, engaging in Community Life, and participating in Interactive Learning, I witnessed groups buzzing with excitement and deep reflection. This Gathering, and the vibrant city of New Orleans, have challenged, supported, and inspired us in ways only this experience could.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton captured the essence of our journey during the final morning’s worship. She declared, “We made it! What a week! We’ve learned a lot, we met new people. We’ve learned about how it rains in New Orleans all the time. So now here we are—we’ve been brave, authentic, free, disruptive…and now we’re going to be disciples.”

Bishop Eaton shared the story of the Good Samaritan, reminding us that our neighbors are not just those we choose, but anyone God places in our lives.

She emphasized, “We don’t get to pick and choose who those people are. Those people are whomever God sends to us in our lives—people we might never ever meet.”

Friends, I have to share a story with you about a man, who I now know is named Robert. This is one of those stories that intersects in ways that only the Holy Spirit can orchestrate:

On Friday morning, I was running late to the convention center. As I hurried out of the hotel, I smiled at a man sitting in a wheelchair on the corner of the street. He said something to me, but I didn’t quite hear him. Despite my rush, I felt compelled to stop. This kind man looked at me with caring eyes and asked me to help him put his shirt on. As I helped him, I noticed it was a blue shirt given to him by another group from the Gathering. We exchanged smiles, and I wished him well before continuing on my way.

Later that day, in the Interactive Learning space, I met a group from Christ Lutheran Church in Brenham, TX. When telling me about their Gathering highlights, they shared their own encounter with a man they had met just that morning. Their youth group had stopped to give a man wearing a blue shirt bracelets and pray with him. My eyes widened as Avery continued the story. Their youth leader, Sharon, asked this man his name, and the group prayed for him, leaving with hearts full of God’s love. As they walked away reflecting on their encounter, Stephen shared how he and his group were reminded of Austin Channing Brown’s powerful message from the previous night. Her words about addressing the root of issues rather than trying to change individuals deeply resonated with them. I learned the name of this man in the blue shirt, now adorned with Gathering bracelets, name is Robert.

If this was all there was to the story, it would be remarkable! The connections continued as Sharon sought me out later to tell me more. You see, later in the afternoon, this group from Brenham, TX, learned even more to the story. They encountered Silas, who had handed the man wearing a blue shirt and Gathering bracelets, a cup of water while they were praying for him. Silas, part of the ELCA Advocacy booth, recounted that in his busy morning, he was also late to the convention center. But having been asked for a cup of water, Silas knew helping this man was more important than being on time. And now Silas knows Robert’s name, too. And so do you. 

Pastor Emily Harkins from the Dwelling spoke about the importance of being known by name. “When we truly see one another, then and only then, will we truly see Jesus. See me. See you. See them. See us. See Jesus.” In Robert’s kind eyes and brilliant smile, we all saw Jesus that morning.

This living Good Samaritan story beautifully exemplifies the message Bishop Eaton preached about in closing worship. It’s a testament to how we are called to be disciples, recognizing and loving our neighbors, regardless of our differences. This encounter with Robert brought the teachings of this week to life, demonstrating how we can be the hands and feet of Jesus in our everyday actions. Through the spirit of courage, compassion, and community, we are called to disrupt what is wrong and work for what is right, seeing Jesus in everyone we meet.

This week, we’ve heard powerful stories and testimonies of the Holy Spirit at work. We’ve danced like no one was watching, sang at the top of our lungs, witnessed moving lyrical dances, tasted the rich flavors of New Orleans, and immersed ourselves in its vibrant culture. This past week at MYLE, the tAble, and the Gathering has been life-changing. As Joe Liles told us at the beginning of the week, we are leaving as new people. We are changed, and friends, we ARE!

Now, in the words of Joe:
We must Walk. This. Out. in our own unique ways.
Walk this out with the Spirit of Courage to serve in new places. Walk this out with the Spirit of Conversation to engage with those we’ve never met. Walk this out with the Spirit of Challenge to embrace uncomfortable faith. Walk this out with the Spirit of Curiosity to ask God who you are becoming.

As you leave New Orleans and return home, carry with you the Spirit of bravery, authenticity, freedom, and disruption. Be the disciple God has called you to be.

Until we meet again in 2027 in Minneapolis for our big Lutheran family reunion, remember who you are Created to Be—wHoly and beautifully, loved and beloved.

Weekly Recap Video

See you in Minneapolis, Friends!

Written by: Vicar Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

Scenes from a Street Car: Created to be Disruptive

Friday, July 19 – Created to Be Disruptive

Today, the final full day of the Youth Gathering, was a whirlwind of excitement and engagement. Participants immersed themselves in the theme “We are created to be disruptive,” working for justice for all.

The energy was palpable in the Interactive Learning Center as students explored educational exhibits from ELCA ministries and partners. This holy space allowed participants to engage with a variety of learning styles and sensory experiences, from fun activities like the Acolyte Olympiad Relay to the profound lessons of the Disaster Relief Kits.

Rev. Nicolette Peñaranda, Director of Interactive Learning shared, “this year through Interactrive Learning, we really wanted to merge our Created to Be theme with New Orleans culture. Through theme and geography, we hope participants had the opportunity to tap into their own spirituality and see the ways their interests and faith intersect. Our community partners and implementation teams worked incredibly hard to curate spaces that engage different learning styles and promote creative outlets.”

McDonough 35, A second-line marching band disrupted the space mid-day with a lively parade that Gathering Participants participated in. This holy disruption added to the dynamic atmosphere, reflecting New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade culture. Other second-line bands featured this week: Roots of Music and Algiers Charter.

At the Naming Project booth, participants relaxed in the colorful Garden of Eden, receiving sparkle blessings from local Drag Queens. Deacon Ross Murray’s message was clear: everyone is known and loved by God and the church just as they are. At the Civic Life and Faith booth, students were inspired to think about social issues and how their voices can shape the future. A student from San Gabriel Lutheran Church, Alvarado, TX, shared that the experience opened their eyes to the many issues still needing attention and dialogue. Another student learned the importance of crafting statements that genuinely make a difference.

Formation Village offered an interactive game where young people were invited to consider what life might look like after high school. Many students don’t even know that there are so many options to them!

Over at the Lantern Hill booth, students painted ceramic tiles for a new school in Mexico, embracing their creativity and commitment to global education. They also engaged in interactive experiences on migration and disaster response, learning about resilience firsthand. Avery from Christ Lutheran Church, Brenham, TX, beautifully summed up the day’s impact: “Even though we’re here for the Gathering, we’re also making an impact in the world.”

   

Tonight, the final full day of the Youth Gathering, the Arena buzzed with an energy that reflected the profound impact New Orleans had on our youth. Despite a long four days with some groups walking an average of 8-10 miles a day, the participants’ spirits were higher than ever as they sang, danced, and filled the space with a vibrancy that could only be of the Holy Spirit.

Puerto Rican-born, Orlando-based contemporary Christian pop singer Blanca, kicked off the evening with an energetic concert, including songs in Spanish. She debuted her new song “Worthy” and shared her testimony, highlighting the night’s theme of “disruption.” Due to a nationwide disruption in flights, an IT failure almost prevented her keyboard player from being here. However, Sam, the sound tech, stepped in to play the keys like no other, showcasing how disruptions can lead to unexpected blessings.

The speakers tonight were powerful, moving, and genuine as they talked about holy disruption. 

Sally Azar, the first female Palestinian pastor in the Holy Land, shared her remarkable journey from attending the ELCA Youth Gathering as a student in 2012 to addressing 16,000 people at the Smoothie King Arena 12 years later. She said, “To be created to be disruptive means to figure out which rules shouldn’t be rules in the first place…We are not called to follow unjust rules; we are called to disrupt injustice. God created us to be a disruption!” Her powerful words emphasized the importance of challenging unjust rules and working for justice and peace in her country, deeply moving the crowd. She then invited the other Palestinian youth and staff with her on stage, where they received a standing ovation.

Lori Fuller, Pastor of Palms Deaf Church in Palm Coast, Fla., spoke through sign language and an interpreter. She shared her experience of discovering God’s love at age 21 in a deaf church and highlighted the need for inclusive worship. She taught the crowd to sign “I am not a mistake, you are not a mistake,” urging them to help disrupt the notion that there’s only one way to experience God’s love.

ELCA youth Nati, from Ethiopia, shared his powerful testimony about being orphaned, coming to America at age 7, and finding a bridge between his two worlds through soccer. His story highlighted the resilience and connections that can emerge from disruptive moments, showing how he walks between his two homes.

The evening was electric, filled with inspiring music, dance, and messages. As the night concluded, the realization that tomorrow’s worship would be the last gathering sank in. 

Friends, as you leave New Orleans and return to your lives, remember these words from Pastor Sally Azar, “Do not be afraid of God’s calling. You are created to be a disruption: to disrupt what is wrong and to work for what is right: for life, for hope, for justice, for peace.”

 

Written by: Vicar Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

Scenes from a Street Car: Created to be Free

Thursday, July 18 – Created to Be Free

Today, over 5k Gathering participants in bright orange shirts launched into the city for “Accompaniment Day,” a day dedicated to walking alongside and supporting the people of New Orleans. Participants engaged with community leaders who are making significant impacts locally and globally. Each project was crafted by local leaders to deepen their missions, highlighting the importance of partnership and continued impact.

Accompaniment involves more than physical tasks; it includes learning about culture, food, and justice-centered work. As we engage in God’s mission, building relationships is essential to proclaiming the Gospel. Participants cleaned parks, painted playgrounds, cleared storm drains, and beautified the New Orleans Women and Children’s Shelter.

Dr. Kristen Contos Krueger, Director of Accompaniment, shared, “I want them to learn that the problems they see in New Orleans are not exclusive to New Orleans. Racism, social justice, and environmental justice are issues everywhere. The experiences here are lessons to take home.”

Some participants attended Color of Grace’s workshop, encouraging youth to be instruments of God’s love and justice. Pastor Aaron from the Southern Ohio Synod expressed his hope for the future. “These young people have the love of Christ and the ability to change the world.” Ian from the Virginia Synod shared his commitment to using his voice for good, saying, “I am created to be bold in a better way to reciprocate God’s love.”

Other students participated on-site with various groups including ELCA Witness in Society. Amy Reumann, ELCA Senior Director for Witness in Society, led discussions on local concerns and the role of public policy in breaking down or reinforcing walls. She inspired students to become advocates, saying, “We can bring the stories of our communities to impact the laws that are passed.”

Some participants worked with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) by supporting CRCL’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program, which collects shells from restaurants and public drop-off sites to build oyster reefs and shoreline habitats. Additional participants engaged with Let’s Be Bigger, a non-profit focused on building relationships for a bigger future. Founder Malik Baloney emphasized the importance of mutual service – aiming to create a bridge between Gathering students and St. James Parish residents. Students learned about the area’s history, engaged with local high school youth, and experienced authentic Louisiana cuisine, including home-cooked jambalaya. Through this cultural learning experience, participants became part of something bigger, gaining new perspectives and understanding a culture different from their own. This experience marked a crucial first step in breaking down barriers and building bridges, inspiring them to foster unity and empathy.

   

Today, miraculously after Accompaniment participants returned from their sites, New Orleans experienced torrential rain and flash floods. Yet, with God’s grace, the rain stopped just in time for participants to head to the Smoothie King Center for the third night of Mass Gathering. The rain did not dampen the spirit of this Lutheran parade as participants entered the arena filled with energy and excitement for the evening.

E-L-C-A 🎉 E-L-C-A 🎉 E-L-C-A 🎉 echoed through the arena as emcees hyped the crowd, who responded with enthusiasm. The arena was alive with the jazzy beats of the “Two Horn Jazz Duo” featuring Ryan Thibodaux on trumpet and Michael Hotstream on saxophone. The House Band and dancers got everyone moving to “Praise the Lord, oh my Soul,” and DJ CJ kept the crowd grooving, even dancing to the Macarena.

We also had the privilege to hear from phenomenal speakers tonight. 

Drew Tucker, executive director of HopeWood Outdoors, spoke about his struggle with an eating disorder and the freedom found in being true to oneself. He encouraged students, saying, “You were created to be free from the burden of being someone else because you were created to be free, fully and wholly yourself.”

Sianna, a young adult speaker, reminded everyone that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Quoting Romans, she emphasized, “Nothing, and I mean nothing, can separate us from the love of God. Our past mistakes, losses, confusion, or even our insecurities. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” She encouraged everyone to embrace their true selves, saying, “Be free, I mean it… BE FREE!”

Austin Channing Brown, author of “I’m Still Here,” delivered a powerful message to students of color, emphasizing their inherent worth. She declared, “People of color, you are not the work. Racial justice is the work.” On a night centered around the theme “Created to Be Free,” her words resonated deeply, highlighting the call to honor human dignity and strive for systemic change. Channing Brown urged us to reframe our thinking, stating, “People who are homeless are not the work. Housing is the work. People who are hungry are not the work. Food insecurity is the work. Those in toxic neighborhoods are not the work. Environmental racism is the work.”

Austin was a tough act to follow, but incoming freshman Jada took the stage tonight with such poise and beautifully delivered a piece that she wrote herself. This 13-year-old was strong and eloquent as her spoken word performance about Jesus’ commitment to justice, calling everyone to “fight for justice with love and care.”

The night ended with Keats Miles-Wallace, who spoke about discovering their true self in college and the freedom of being loved by God as they are. Keats inspired everyone, saying, “God created you to be free. Free to be your truest selves, free to be proud of who you are, free to be weird and different and unique.”

As you go out into this world, remember Keats’ words, “You have the power to help make a world where everyone gets to shine in whatever colors, patterns, or shapes God designed for them. You can make a world where everyone experiences the way God delights in them.”

You are created to be FREE!

Day 3 Recap Video

Written by: Vicar Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

Scenes from a Street Car: Created to be Brave

Tuesday, July 16 – Created to Be Brave

Today, the streets of New Orleans were alive with color and energy as over 16,000 youth and their adult leaders filled the city. Excitement buzzed in the air as old friends reunited with joyous screams and new connections began to form among youth and adults arriving at the airport and engaging in Holy Play in Community Life.

Community Life was vibrant and full of energy. All five gaga ball pits were filled with not only youth but their leaders as well. Students played inflatable wack-a-mole, hungry-hungry hippo, and ran through giant inflatables. We witnessed bravery in action as kids gathered the courage to ask others to play with them, embracing the playfulness that God intends for them.

Cassie Overcash, Community Life planning team member,  shared her hopes that this week, youth would get the opportunity to try something new, play games, and build relationships in a safe and accessible environment. The intentionality behind the activities was evident, with accessible gaga-ball pits, courts with lower nets, and inclusive inflatables like the Wrecking Ball and Soccer.

Community Life is an opportunity after Mass Gathering that features dances, quiet spaces with board games, craft supplies, devotional materials, and Q&A sessions with speakers in four different hotels. Cassie hinted at a youth band concert on Thursday night, adding to the excitement.

As the Mass Gathering kicked off for the first time this week, the Smoothie King Center buzzed with energy and excitement as students and their leaders arrived from across the United States, , the Caribbean, and even a congregation from Canada. Participants from the tAble, MYLE, and the first-ever Young Adult Gathering attended the show. The atmosphere was electric with energy and excitement. The wave rippled through the arena, and participants danced to the theme song “Walk This Out.”
The Holy Spirit’s presence was palpable as the arena filled with cheers and joy.

Bishop Michael Rinehart, of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, welcomed everyone and acknowledged the native Chitimacha Tribe, urging us to remember the history of the land and challenge systems of oppression. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said that she often hears people ask, “Where are the Youth and Young adults?” “Well, here you are. And you are not the church of tomorrow. You are the church of right now. YOU make a difference. You can make a change. You can be disruptive!”

Tonight’s lineup of speakers delivered a powerful and inspiring message, sharing their stories and encouraging us to be brave, reminding us that we are never alone.

Speaker Joe Liles powerfully emphasized to everyone that you can’t keep the Spirit of God inside you. He said,

“We all need to walk. This. Out. In our own way:
Walk this out with the Spirit of Courage to serve in a new city.
Walk this out with the Spirit of Conversation to talk with people you have never met.
Walk this out with the Spirit of Challenge to embrace uncomfortable faith.
Walk this out with the Spirit of Curiosity to ask God who you are becoming this week.

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, we come together with a group of close friends for worship. This year, it’s happening in New Orleans. The Holy Spirit was vibrant and alive, filling the arena tonight as we worshiped with over 16,000 of our siblings in Christ. This is just the beginning, and as Joe Liles said, by the end of the week, we will be changed!

As we go out this week, let’s remember the powerful words of Dr. Michael Chan: “You were precious long before you could prove it. You are precious, just as you are created to be.” Let’s walk this out into the City of New Orleans, praising God, for we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Go in peace and BE Brave!

 

Written by: Vicar Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

Scenes from a Street Car: Day 4 from MYLE and the tAble

Tuesday, July 16 – Day 4 MYLE and the tAble in Closing

Today, MYLE and the tAble came to a close. Students were in disbelief that their time together was over, but excited to join their youth groups for the Gathering. Over these past four days, the power of community was undeniable. When asked to describe their perfect sense of community, one student from the tAble simply said, “This place here. Right here, with these people.”

At closing worship, Bishop Felix Malpica spoke about God’s history of miraculous disruptions. He reminded us that Jesus consistently reached out to the marginalized, declaring, “I see you. You matter in this kin-dom of God.”

The tAble celebrated the richness of diversity, providing a space where students felt wHoly accepted just as they are. Today, as students built Lego figures representing themselves, they learned that everyone has a place in the body of Christ. It was particularly moving when a young man asked for help putting his Lego figures into wheelchairs, a powerful reminder that everyone is created in the love of God. This heartfelt moment underscored the profound importance of inclusivity, showing how deeply it matters for each person to be seen, valued, and embraced in all their uniqueness.

When asked about God moments at the 2024 tAble for the week, Director Jonathan Vehar shared that while there were so many, it’s the in-between time, that stood out to him. “Nothing that we planned, but in the freedom came their interests and passions that allowed them to better know one another.”

Vehar also shared, “A highlight of the week is for something that hasn’t happened yet, the road trips now being planned to meet up with best friends, even if they’ve only known each other a few days. It’s such an incredible thing to see how quickly friendships are formed when you find people who understand part of your story without saying a word. The tAble will continue to make an impact on those who came.”

MYLE Director, Dr. Kelly Sherman-Conroy, shares her hopes for the students this week saying, “I hope the youth left feeling more connected and stronger in their faith. I hope that the spaces created at MYLE helped them create a strong sense of community. Most importantly, I hope they remember that they continue to celebrate that they are “Created to Be” the amazingly wonderful and authentic selves they are. Go out and positive difference in the world.”

This week, the tAble and MYLE showcased the unending love and grace of Christ through youth who love and accept like Jesus. The connections built and friendships made among people who had just met for the first time were incredibly powerful. The Spirit is indeed up to something good and continues as we move into the Gathering. Enjoy the in-between times and be brave!

 

MYLE 2024 Recap Video
the tAble 2024 Recap Video

Written by: Vicar Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

Scenes from a Street Car: Day 3 from MYLE and the tAbe

Monday, July 15 – Day 3 from MYLE and the tAble

The last full day of MYLE and the tAble was brimming with connection, creativity, and community spirit. 

At MYLE, it was “Created to Be” Spirit Day—a celebration of individuality, purpose, and potential. Participants expressed their identities through clothing and accessories reflecting who they are or what they’re passionate about, from motivational t-shirts to cultural attire and hobby gear, embracing uniqueness and collective strengths.

During morning worship, Dr. Moses Penumaka, president of the ELCA Association of Asians and Pacific Islanders, spoke to MYLE participants about our freedom in Christ, saying, “We are created to be free to love the world, heal the world, and embrace diversity, work for equity, and be inclusive.” Quoting Martin Luther, he reminded us, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” His words inspire us to serve our neighbors with love and embrace the freedom we have in Christ.

Meanwhile, students from the tAble went on a field trip to the Smoothie King Center. This behind-the-scenes look allowed students to familiarize themselves and become more comfortable in the space where Mass Gathering will take place. Experiencing the arena while it was empty helped prepare them for the excitement of being among 16,000+ participants, ensuring they feel comfortable and ready.

The fruits of the past three days spent in community were evident. Friendships blossomed as groups intermingled during free time, shared ice cream, and participated in workshops. The spoken word vibe-circle resonated with the wisdom, “You can only choose what you bring to each day. You can’t choose what everyone else brings.”

Students from both MYLE and the tAble spent time in Community Life together, engaging in holy play on giant inflatables. Witnessing the inclusive and gracious community forming between the two groups was a joy, with smiles and laughter filling the space.

Creativity was celebrated in many ways all day, from community art projects to talent showcases. During craft time at the tAble, students discussed the expansive love of God, sharing their faith in brave and meaningful conversations. 

At the MYLE Village Showcase, we learned about positive disruption in Puerto Rico through video and skit, enjoyed a beautiful dance from a Minnesota Swahili group, and learned to say “Praise the Lord” in Swahili: Bwana Yesu Asifiwe. Joe Davis shared a vulnerable moment about feeling free, reminding us that freedom is cultivated in community. We need to practice it every day, shouting from the bottom of our hearts to the top of our lungs: “I am free. You are free. We are Free… Because God says so.”

From vocals and dance moves to Beethoven on the piano, stand-up jokes, poetry readings, cup stacking skills, and skits, the Variety Show at the tAble was a testament to the love and support these new friends shared. One caregiver delivered an incredible rendition of “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman, with powerful lyrics resonating with everyone: “I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be, this is me…I’m marching on to the beat I drum. I’m not scared to be seen. I make no apologies, this is me”

As participants enjoyed their day in community, the convention center buzzed with activity as volunteers assembled, and participants began to check in. Gathering Directors, Deacon Tammy Jones West and Deacon Jess Liles, commissioned around 600 volunteers for the Gathering. Bishop Eaton expressed her deepest gratitude on behalf of the ELCA, even taking a selfie with all the volunteers!

Today was a testament to the power of community, the beauty of embracing who we are, and the joy of serving and supporting one another. Let’s carry this spirit forward, shining brightly and serving freely as we continue to create, connect, and grow together.

Written by: Vicar Bobbi Cyr (she/her)