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ELCA Youth Gathering Blog

Get your krewe together! 🎉

Where y’at? 👋

This standard New Orleans greeting means simply “How are you?” or “What’s going on?” So don’t say where you are. Just say you’re doing all right!

Our team is gearing up for the 2024 ELCA Youth Gathering, the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event (MYLE), the tAble and the new Young Adult Gathering next summer. The Gathering and Young Adult Gathering will take place in New Orleans July 16-20, and our pre-events will take place July 13-16. We have over 12,000 young people and their adult leaders registered for this life-changing faith formation event, coming from over 1,200 congregations!

We’ve heard from many groups that they feel behind and don’t even know where to begin. We’ve also learned that the days of early registration are a thing of the past. Organizers of other large events have noticed that registrations are trending toward the final deadline rather than the priority rate. With all that said, it’s certainly not too late to join us next summer, so here are a few tips to get you started on your journey to the bayou! 🐊

STEP 1: Get your krewe together!

Using the Gathering’s promotional materials, invite those currently in eighth through 12th grade to participate in the Gathering next summer!

Got only a few interested? That’s OK! Let’s get you connected to your Gathering Synod Champion to see if there are others in the same boat that you might partner with.

STEP 2: Let’s do some fundraising.

We have a full course in the gLearn Handbook Series filled with ideas and suggestions for raising some money to help you get to the Big Easy. You can access a sample budget, which can be found via the magical link below. This might feel overwhelming right now, but we hear time and time again that the Gathering belongs on the timeline of your faith journey.

Let’s budget!

STEP 3: Register for the Gathering 101 webinar.

Gathering leadership will be hosting a Gathering webinar on December 5 at 7pm Central. Bring your questions! We’re here to help you as you discern whether to bring a group to the Gathering, the MYLE and the tAble next summer. We’ll share exciting updates about the Gathering program, what to expect and tips for planning. Can’t make it? Still sign up– we’ll email a recording after.

Sign me up!

We hope that you’ll consider bringing your young people to the Gathering for this life-changing experience. We are confident that it will be a Gathering to remember. ❤️

Accompaniment: Walking the Road with Companions

Servant Leadership at the Gathering with Companions and Coaches

Written by Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

As we have entered into the Easter Season, I have been especially drawn to the road that Jesus walked with his disciples. Jesus showed us how to be in community with, share in life’s joys and hardships with, how to eat with, pray with, serve with, and how to build relationships with one another. Even after death, we see the Resurrected Jesus walk the Road to Emmaus alongside people he had just met, and he gives us a model of a good companion. Jesus accompanies them in their journey, sharing in story, and breaking bread with them. We are called to actively participate in God’s mission in the world and like Jesus, we meet various people with whom we share in this journey. At its heart, accompaniment is walking alongside others with Jesus, as we answer God’s call to mission.  I believe this is what it means to be a Servant Coach and Companion at the Gathering.

How Do We Accompany the City in Which We Serve

In mission, our companions on the road may be individual people in our own community, in other communities, or around the world. As we accompany these companions, it’s important to remember that service comes in all forms. When we think about Accompaniment Day (formerly known as Service Learning), we need to remember the story of the road to Emmaus and that we are here to walk this road with the people of New Orleans. Tiffany Wilson, serving on the Accompaniment team, reminds us, “We need to enter into this space with an intentional mindset that we do not serve to save. [New Orleans] is doing just fine on its own.  We are here to accompany the city in the ways in which God’s already working through these partners. As we prepare, we are intentionally asking our partners how we can help them reach their goals.” That might be a physical task, but it also might be educational in learning about the culture and food, or more justice-centered work. Regardless of what this service looks like, as we engage in God’s mission through accompaniment, we must remember that in order to proclaim the Gospel, we must first place priority on being in relationship. 

What does Servant Leadership Look Like at the Gathering?

Accompaniment is one of the central experiences of the Gathering. Remember those companions who enter our life and walk alongside us on the journey? As you engage in the purpose of Accompaniment day, you will not be alone on the road; Servant Companions will walk alongside participants and their leaders helping them to connect with local organizations, hear their stories, work together, and learn how to engage in similar work at home. Servant Companions are a pivotal link between the Gathering participants and the Accompaniment team. These leaders guide congregational groups as they learn, experience, and serve alongside the people of New Orleans.  

So You Were a Participant… Now What?

Recently, I had the opportunity to connect with Evan Rogaczewski who started his journey with the Gathering in New Orleans as a participant in both 2009 and 2012. Like many young adults after high school, Evan found it hard to stay connected to the church while going to college. Since he enjoyed the Gathering as a participant, he found that volunteering as a Servant Companion was an easy choice and one way that he could stay involved, while accompanying youth as they served. Evan recalled how helpful it was to have companions guiding him on past mission trips. He shared that when things don’t always go right, it is nice having someone who has been there; especially someone who not only thrives in the midst of chaos, but can help provide stability in those situations. Evan wanted to be one of those people to support others and volunteered as a Servant Companion in both Detroit (2015) and in Houston (2018). 

For Evan, his favorite part of being a Servant Companion was building relationships with fellow volunteers, several of whom he is still good friends with 6–8 years later. When the days are long and exhaustion sets in, there may also be a lot of inside jokes that keep the team afloat. Being a Servant Companion provides a great opportunity for growth. As both a Coach and a Companion, you are in a position where you have to be calm and think on your feet. The greatest growth, both personally and in faith, happens when we are challenged and stretched. Evan shares that beyond the early mornings and the work, it’s really the community that makes it worth all it and why he keeps coming back!

Answering the Call

God is actively at work in the world and in the city we are being called and sent to. Together, we will be in mutual relationship with the city of New Orleans, asking how we can actively participate in God’s mission and work.

Both Coaches and Servant Companions are equipped to share the good news and serve our participants as they work to serve the neighbors of New Orleans. 

Coaches train, mentor, and support young adults who serve as Servant Companions during the Gathering. 

Servant Companions guide Gathering participants as they learn, experience, and serve alongside the people of New Orleans on their Accompaniment day. 

God invites us to the table and sends us to go out as companions to walk with and to serve. When we tire, our fellow companions hold us up; when our faith is weak, our companions remind us of what we have seen and shared together. Like the people on the road to Emmaus, God gives us companions for this purpose. 

Learn More and Apply

Is the Holy Spirit stirring within you to accept this call to be a Servant Coach or Companion in New Orleans?

Applications to be a Servant Companion Coach are open through June 2. Apply Here!
Applications for Servant Companions will open on June 15. Get more information on Volunteering of the Gathering HERE.

Why “Created to Be?”

A message from the Director of the ELCA Youth Gathering, Deacon Tammy Jones West– 

I have been a part of many theme discernment spaces for synodical events, but this was my first time bringing together young people from around this church to discern a theme for an event that is two plus years away. What might be relevant at that time? How might the theme speak to the young people attending the event?

In the room were four youth, four young adults, and two adults. It was a diverse group, and it was pure joy to watch them wrestle with the task at hand. We started in prayer followed by conversations about past themes and time delving into the texts from our host synod, the Gulf Coast Synod, around their core values: Following Jesus, Walking Together, Making Disciples, Speaking the Truth in Love, Maturing Theologically, Growing Passionate Leadership, Welcoming Everyone, and Accompanying the Poor.

We also spent time telling our truths.

  • God, I don’t understand _____.
  • God, please fix _____.
  • God, I trust you with my future even if _____.
  • God, I will praise you even when _____.

(Taken from The Innovative Church by the Rev. Dr. Scott Cormode)

The group spent time together generating ideas and then in prayer time alone. They spent time with the question – what do we want youth to leave the city of New Orleans knowing about themselves and God?

We talked a lot about a tapestry of gifts, hurts, harm, grace, and love.

This theme just felt right. We loved the ability to pick daily themes around ways we are created— brave, authentic, free, disruptive, and disciples. Our hope is that every person that engages with this ministry will be able to walk away knowing that they were created by the Holy One to be themselves.

We can’t wait to explore this theme deeper in resources and stories over the next year and a half. We invite you to join us!

How in the world do you select a host city? 

Announcing the city of the ELCA Youth Gathering, Multicultural Youth Leadership Event and the tAble is a fun and somewhat interesting task. In this blog post, we’ll give you a behind the scenes look at the process of selecting a city to host this life changing faith formation event in.  

First, cities bid on the event years in advance. We’ve already selected a city to host the 2027 Gathering and we are close for 2030. If that doesn’t instill terror in your planning hearts, think about it.  

  • What might this church look like in 2030? 
  • What will our youth groups look like in 8 years?  
  • How many hotel rooms and ballrooms will we need to contract?
  • What type of venues would best suit our participants?

It’s one of the things that makes us lose sleep over. Why do we need to plan so far in advance, you might be wondering? Really, this isn’t so far in advance to cities. They are consistently planning 10 years out on what groups will come to their city. Gathering leadership selected New Orleans to be the 2024 host city all the way back in 2017. So, in a nutshell, the city isn’t chosen based on need, political leaning or any of the reasons consistently rumored about. It’s impossible to predict what will be happening in our world 5-10 years in advance.  

Next, let’s narrow down the cities that can host the Gathering— sadly, it’s not just any big city. In the most recent cycles, we’ve searched for a city that has a closed stadium or large venue arena in close walking distance to a large convention center. Additionally, places for all of you to sleep (yes, even if it’s just for a few hours a night). It’s a lot of rooms we need—all within a certain distance from our venues. New Orleans is an amazing city to host our event because it’s a walkable city with all our hotel properties close to the convention center or the stadium. Transportation is simplified (and cheaper)—which means we can spend those dollars on exciting programming for you and your young people.  

Some cycles, the number of cities that bid is high and the CVBs (Convention and Visitors Bureau) can offer the moon to get you to sign with them. Sometimes, the hotel rates we are requesting are too low when they could get better rates from business travelers, and cities choose not to bid. It just depends.  

Every cycle we hear something along the lines of “Oh, (insert host city here) needs us. I’m so glad we are going there.” We get the sentiment, however, let’s be clear on one thing— we are not going into the city to fix it. In our five short days in the city, we might inspire others, learn from locals doing great work, give new eyes to a problem, or even pitch in for a short-term win but we go into a city knowing God is already working, already on the ground and we are invited in to watch, learn, listen, pray and maybe get our hands dirty—or not.  

Every Gathering cycle, leadership spends a good chunk of time listening to those in the city before we arrive so that we do more good than harm and hopefully, our young people leave loving a city and its culture, the locals and thinking differently about issues of justice and peace.  

Another thing we often hear is, “Why would we spend our money in that state, etc.?” With contracts and a commitment that our church will show up in these cities 5-10 years in advance, it’s impossible to know what the city or state might be like when the event happens. It’s hard. However, we see it as a chance for us to join with those on the ground in a state that might be hard to serve in and where God might be calling us to advocate on behalf of the least of these.  

Well, that’s a snapshot of what happens 5-10 years leading up to the Gathering. It’s a daunting, yet thrilling task. New Orleans is an amazing place. We look forward to welcoming you in 2024. 

Behind the curtain…

A message from Deacon Tammy Jones West, 2024 ELCA Youth Gathering Program Director—

First, there is no curtain but for a peek into the behind-the-scenes happenings of the ELCA Youth Gathering, let me start with my first few months on staff.

Let me introduce you to the people who are called to serve this ministry at the Churchwide office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I am Deacon Tammy Jones West and I serve as the Program Director for the 2024 ELCA Youth Gathering. Alongside me is Justin Wilson who was originally hired as communications/social media person but has wowed us all with his ability to step up into so much more. That’s it friends. Justin and I aren’t singing – just the two of us but it’s true – sort of. (Plus, Justin is way too young to even know the line to that song.)

That’s just those of us at the Churchwide office. We plan to hire another staff member to help with registration/housing in the coming months, and soon the Churchwide organization will be searching for the person God is calling to be the next program director to begin planning for 2027 and beyond.

Now, there’s another group of people who you need to know, and we’ll be announcing these individuals shortly, but the group formerly known as Team Leaders, now Directors, are the backbone of this event. Nine people who will build teams, supervise managers, and make the magic happen. What are those roles?

Directors of…

  • Accompaniment
  • Community Life
  • Interactive Learning
  • Logistics
  • Mass Gathering
  • Multicultural Youth Leadership Event (MYLE)
  • Gathering Synod Champions
  • the tAble
  • Volunteers

Serving alongside the directors and forming what we call their core team will be managers of…

Safety and Security, Medical, Transportation, Operations, IT, Justice/Advocacy, Service Learning, Cultural Immersion, Bible studies, Tech and Talent, Champion’s Square, Partners, Administration, and more.

That’s not all friends. Once the Gathering lands in New Orleans, implementation teams join the family. That’s 99 additional people, who will help make these teams work and thrive.

One more important group to remember— our volunteers. 415 volunteers give up a week of vacation to serve this ministry and be with our young people as they explore God’s grace and love.

And finally, adult leaders. Those who really make this ministry happen. The planning, praying, fundraising, details, love, and care that adults who bring our young people provide is invaluable. So, it’s just the two of us and thousands more.

Let’s do this friends— we’ll see you in New Orleans!

New Orleans & the ELCA Youth Gathering

Since the start of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) in 1988, New Orleans has hosted the ELCA Youth Gathering and pre-events three different times. The city has a unique blend of history, culture and beautiful venues that are within walking distance of one another— making it a prime location for the 2024 Gathering.

Emphasizing the Mississippi River and connecting it to our Baptism, River of Life was the theme of the 1997 Gathering. It was a time when less than 40% of the population had a cell phone and none of them were smartphones. Pictures were taken on a camera that then was taken to the store to develop and then later to relive the memories of a time together.

Most notably, under the theme of Jesus, Justice, Jazz in 2009, the Gathering attempted something no other group has ever attempted nor to our knowledge still has— have every attendee participate in a Service Learning experience. It may seem normal now, but at the time it was something that had never been attempted. Heidi Hagstrom, the former Gathering Director said “I think the best words for the Gathering are ‘bearing witness.’ We would love it for young people to come to (New Orleans) and hear stories, learn the history, and discern how God has been present in the disaster that has happened there.” Prior to the 2009 Gathering, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city of New Orleans causing catastrophic damage and at the time was the worse natural disaster to hit the United States.

“Bearing witness means that you need to step into the story of another person, to understand the call to justice and be a part of the need in the city for a long time and witness to that,” Hagstrom said.

When returning home after the Gathering, participants will be asked to share the story of how God is present in New Orleans and look for ways to live like Jesus. The Superdome that hosted Mass Gathering each night had once been a place where people had sought shelter, and some had unfortunately lost their lives just a few years earlier. During worship one evening, Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Texas – Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod declared the Superdome as a sacred space and a place for healing. It was a bold task to provide service projects for that many people, but there was a ton of work that we were called to do to help our neighbors in that moment.

In 2012, we returned under the theme of Citizens with the Saints. After listening to community leaders in the city of New Orleans, participants responded by showing up to learn justice, to walk justice, and then practice justice by being in the community in various ways.

Instead of being called “Service Learning”, this cycle young people went out to “Practice Justice” through literacy camps, neighborhood cleanups, absorbing information about injustices in the city, experiencing unique cultures, painting murals, backyard gardening and more. There was even work that wasn’t finished from 2009, that we were able to finish in 2012. All connected to God‘s restorative work that was ever living and connected with the people of New Orleans. Other daily themes focused around “Practice Discipleship” and “Practice Peacemaking.”

In the evening, participants came together in the Superdome to hear inspirational speakers such as the Rev. Yehiel Curry (now Bishop of Metropolitan Chicago Synod), the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, activist Shane Claiborne, and 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee. We also sang and danced to performances from Rachel Kurtz, AGAPE*, as well as many local jazz bands and artists.

The stage is set. We’re headed back in 2024 to listen and learn from our neighbors in New Orleans, to grow in our faith and be inspired to live like Jesus.

A group of faithful young people and adults will soon be gathering to discern a theme for the 2024 Gathering. To help their discernment, we invite you to provide a few suggestions through a Google Form.

Until then, be safe, love your neighbor and live like Jesus.