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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.

Juneteenth: We Will Breathe

by Joe Davis

Juneteenth commemorates a day when my ancestors could breath a little more freely. On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, enslaved Africans were read federal orders that they were freed, even though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed over two years prior. They didn’t know they were free because, in spite of the law, they were still brutalized by those who weaponized power. This was this liberatory announcement that initiated the joyful reunion of long-separated loved ones and the work of reconstructing after centuries of being held down by the harsh American slave system. 

Today, families of African descent throughout the United States celebrate this Freedom Day, which gave us a brief moment to inhale deeper than before. However, as a Black artist and educator living in Minneapolis, MN during an uprising that has sparked freedom demonstrations around the world, I know that oppressive powers have only shifted their weight on the necks of vulnerable Black bodies as we cried out to breathe. 

I can only imagine how profoundly the Giver of all life and breath (1) must become enraged and grief-stricken every time the breath in our bodies is snuffed out by violent power. But I needn’t imagine this response, as Jesus incarnated this reality when he protested abusive authority decrying those holding power through violence as hypocrites and snakes (2) and damaged temple property when it was being valued more than the humanity of his people (3). Although divisive and controversial to corrupt religious leaders and exploitative lawmakers, Jesus embodied a form of justice not rooted in revenge or retribution, but instead in restoration and healing. Even though he could have commanded an army of angels to battle on his behalf (4) his love for the most vulnerable was held so deeply in his body that he lived and died among them in a communion of shared vulnerability. Jesus gave his all, his last breath, to empower them, and to empower us, to rise again. His desire was that we would all be freed from the grips of power-hoarding, death-dealing systems and breathe in the abundance of life-affirming community. 

Jesus intensely understood the soul wound and how violence, at its core, is a spilling over of trauma and suffering from one body to another. Resmaa Manekem, body-centered therapist and author of My Grandmother’s Hand: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, describes the soul wound as trauma routinely passed on from person to person and from generation to generation. The only way to stop the cyclical pattern is not punitive force but reparative action and a commitment to the practice and process of healing. This calls for the healing of the oppressor and the oppressed, as stated by Dr. Joi Lewis, Twin Cities healer, author, and founder of the Healing Justice Foundation. Dr Lewis states, “Oppression is not an inevitable state of affairs and no human being would agree to oppress another person or agree to be oppressed if they weren’t already hurt.” 

The wounds of violence reach the innermost essence of our beings, it viscerally impacts our flesh and becomes ritualized in every part of society and culture from policing to politics. When we heal the systems that live inside of us, then we can also heal the systems that live outside of us. And that is the path to collective liberation that Jesus calls us all to embody (5). 

Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day, speaks to this call, an ancestral echo of the struggle for freedom heard in the litany of voices throughout history. If we listen, we can hear it resonating in the song of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam—among countless other scriptural leaders —organizing themselves and their people to escape the slave system of pharaohs and kings who denied their demands for human dignity until death was too close to home (6). Once their lungs were no longer constricted by the tyrannical rule of empire, they had enough space to breathe new life into prophetic visions of Jubilee, where prisoners could be liberated, debts forgiven, and the land renewed (7). 

I long to live in a world not of crippling dependence on guns and cages as lethal enforcers of systemic injustice, but a world where our bodies and our institutions rise with the deep, slow rhythms of healing. We don’t live in that world yet, but it’s worth working for with every breath we have.


Joe Davis is a nationally-touring artist, educator, and speaker based in Minneapolis, MN, whose work employs poetry, music, theater, and dance to shape culture. He is the Founder and Director of multimedia production company, The New Renaissance, the frontman of emerging soul funk band, The Poetic Diaspora, and qualified administrator of the Intercultural Development Inventory. He has keynoted, facilitated conversation, and served as teaching artist at hundreds of high schools and universities including New York, Boston, and most recently as the Artist-in-Residence at Luther Seminary where he received a Masters in Theology of the Arts.


1: Genesis 2:7 (CEB) the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life. 

2: Matthew 23 (CEB) Jesus Calls Out the Legal Experts and Religious Leaders; Matthew 12:34 (CEB) Children of snakes! How can you speak good things while you are evil? What fills the heart comes out of the mouth. 

3: Matthew 21: 12 (CEB) Then Jesus went into the temple and threw out all of those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. 

4: Psalms 91:12 and Matthew 4:6 

5: Luke 17:20-21Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom was coming. He replied, God’s kingdom isn’t coming with signs that are easily noticed. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is!’ Or ‘There is!’ Don’t you see? God’s kingdom is already among you. 

6: Exodus 12:29-50 

7: Leviticus 25: 8-18

Reflections on Volunteering in Minneapolis

 

It has been 3 weeks since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the city in which I call home. Unfortunately, the senseless killings perpetuated from racism are not uncommon. The outcry for justice, though, has been very common across the United States and countries throughout the world.

The George Floyd memorial on 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis is holy ground where people gather. Gather to pay their respects, gather to lay down flowers, gather with advocacy organizations and gather around food and water. The words and artwork are a balm for the wounds that I, a white woman, cannot even begin to imagine.

The past couple weeks, I have spent time volunteering at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church just blocks from the epicenter. Since George Floyd’s murder, Holy Trinity has become a sanctuary for demonstrators, a medic station for the wounded, a place of support for local small businesses and a pop-up food and necessity distribution site. Streets have been lined with cars with donations and greeters. Pregnant women and people with disabilities were accompanied, to ensure their needs were met. I heard so many touching stories over the week. One of them that stood out, especially as a youth minister, is the confirmation students who purchased detergent and collected all the quarters they could find, so people could still do their laundry.

Something else that stuck out to me is seeing a mother taking pictures of her daughter in her cap and gown. I went over and started talking to her and she said, “this is her history.” I pray for this young woman and her family. I also pray for our community, our country. I pray that this moment and these pictures are the time that she can tell her children and grandchildren that this was the turning point in our history. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

 

Kris Bjorke serves as the Service Learning Project Manager for the 2021 ELCA Youth Gathering. She lives in the Minneapolis area and enjoys drinking coffee with friends, being with family and pets, the outdoors, football and hockey games, travel (with a special affinity for National Parks) and quilting.

Meet Matthew

by: Matthew Felbein

Hello! My name is Matthew Felbein and I am thrilled to be able to serve as one of the Gathering Hosts for the 2021 ELCA Youth Gathering in Minneapolis. This will be my second Gathering, and even though it is still about 450 days away (I might be counting already…) I couldn’t be more excited!

Currently, I am a junior in high school and I try to be involved in everything that I can. Music is a huge part of my life as well as my faith. I love sharing music at my church whether it’s in a brass group, the high school choir, or playing the organ and piano. I’m also involved with a lot of theater and music activities and my school.

I was absolutely blown away by the 2018 Gathering in Houston. From the first night, I felt named and claimed as a child of God more than ever. Seeing thousands of people of all different backgrounds from all over the country come together for worship, service, and lots of fun was an incredible experience. Without a doubt, it was one of the best weeks of my life and it really did change everything. When I left, I knew I wanted to be able to inspire people like I had been inspired by the emcees, speakers, musicians, and volunteers at the Gathering, and I am so blessed to have this new opportunity!

I can’t wait to see how God’s boundless love fills us in Minneapolis in 2021. See you then!

 

 

Where I Belong

by: Adam Knudson

I am an ordained pastor and serve on staff at a Lutheran Church, but I am not an ordained ELCA pastor. My background is Presbyterian. My first Gathering experience was in New Orleans for the 2009 Gathering, Jesus Justice Jazz. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never been to Louisiana before, I’d never attended such a large youth event before, I was afraid of what it would be like to lead a group of a couple dozen youth and adults around a city that I had never visited. Why did I agree to do this anyway?

Our church is in California and while there are MANY churches and many large churches in California, there are not a lot of Lutherans and even fewer large Lutheran churches. Attending the Gathering offers the youth from my church an opportunity to understand their place and their identity within a larger community. When the ELCA gathers tens of thousands of youth from across the country and beyond, some of our best values and our highest priorities are showcased, highlighted and lived in vibrant and compelling ways. 

When our youth attend the Gathering, I don’t need to teach a lesson, read a Bible story, or prepare a class on what we believe or how God calls us to live in the world. The core values of our faith are written large on giant screens, crowded buses full of folks with bright orange shirts ready to serve, and youth and adults willing to listen to the stories of our hosts as we enter their communities and their cities.

The ELCA Youth Gathering has opened my mind to understand the great breadth and depth of what it means to be Lutheran. The Gathering has given me a chance to share this perspective with our youth, to hold up their faith as a mirror in which they can see who they are and in turn, our youth return home and share stories with our congregation. For me, the Gathering is an opportunity to participate in the kin-dom of God and to recognize God’s family as a place where I belong.

Adam Knudson has served as Youth Pastor at Hope Lutheran in Fresno, CA for thirteen years. He is involved in youth ministry networks in his community and Synod.