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Dear Youth Leader: You are Brave!

Dear youth leader,

As you prepare for the Gathering, you might be feeling a mix of excitement and anxiety. The task of planning and leading a trip for your group can be daunting, especially knowing that thousands of youth and their leaders from various congregations across the ELCA will be converging in New Orleans in just a few short months. The pressure to ensure everything goes smoothly, from travel logistics to group dynamics, can feel overwhelming. Know that these feelings are completely normal, and you are not alone in this journey.

We recognize the immense effort you are putting into planning this experience. It’s no small feat to organize travel logistics, accommodation details, and a full schedule of activities while also keeping your youth engaged and enthusiastic. The unknowns and potential challenges can add to your worries. Remember, your dedication and hard work are deeply appreciated, and you are making a significant impact on the lives of these young people.

Here are a few thoughts to help you navigate this journey:

  1. Your Presence Matters: How you show up—your attitude, your energy, your openness—will greatly influence the experience of your group. Your youth look to you for guidance and reassurance. Even when things don’t go as planned, your calm and non-anxious presence can help keep the group grounded.
  2. Embrace Curiosity: Approach this experience with a posture of curiosity. Encourage your youth to ask questions and explore. It’s okay to admit when you don’t have all the answers. Use these moments as opportunities to brainstorm together and discover solutions as a team.
  3. Flexibility is Key: Let your group know from the start that things might not always go according to plan. Emphasize the importance of being flexible and open to change. Challenges can be valuable learning experiences. Ask, “What can we learn from this?” and use setbacks as teaching moments.
  4. Be Prepared: While it’s essential to have a solid plan, it’s equally important to be ready to adapt. Have backup plans in place and stay nimble. Be prepared for the unexpected, and trust in your ability to navigate through any hurdles.
  5. Encourage Leadership: Empower your youth to take the lead. Trust them to handle responsibilities and make decisions. This not only alleviates some of your burdens but also helps them grow in confidence and capability.
  6. Prioritize Self-Care: The summer heat in New Orleans can be intense. Ensure both you and your youth stay hydrated, wear sun protection,  and take necessary breaks. Your well-being is crucial for the success of the trip.
  7. Be Authentic: Show your true self to your youth. Your authenticity will inspire them to be genuine and open. Be brave in sharing your own experiences and feelings.

Dearest youth leader, hear these words: you are capable! You have been called to this role because you have what it takes. Trust in your abilities and the support around you. You are enough! You don’t need to have all the answers or be perfect. Your presence, care, and leadership are more than enough. You are brave! Stepping into the unknown with courage and an open heart is a testament to your bravery. Your willingness to lead and support these young people is admirable. You are making a difference! Every effort you put in, every moment of guidance, every word of encouragement—it all matters. You are shaping lives and making a lasting impact.

Amidst all the planning and preparation, remember to take moments to breathe, reflect, and recharge. Your efforts are seen, and your dedication is making a difference. As you lead your group this summer, may you find strength, joy, and fulfillment in the incredible journey ahead.

Take care, be brave, and may you and your youth find inspiration and growth in who God has created you to be.
We’ll see you in the bayou!

Written by: Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

Created to be… Authentic

We are each uniquely created in the image of God. Take a moment and hold up a mirror, or turn your cellphone on selfie mode and look at yourself.

You, in all your glorious beauty, are made in our Creator’s image, perfectly imperfect and uniquely you. We are each created to bring our whole authentic selves to the table. But what does that look like? 

We had the chance to ask a few young people what it means to know that as beloved children of God they are Created To Be Authentic. We also wanted to know when they feel empowered to be their most authentic selves and if they have a community or church that not only supports them in this but also encourages them to live out their God-created identities?

Here are some of their responses—

David from Washington shares:
To me, the word authentic means being myself no matter what others say or think, authenticity is being as real and true to yourself as you can. Being created to be my authentic self means that I am perfectly imperfect and created in the image of God to be exactly who I am, not bending or changing my core values or morals to match others I don’t agree with. It also means that I can choose when to listen to what others have to say about me. At the end of the day, I’m the one making those decisions on what I believe would be most authentic and true to myself and my beliefs. I believe that a community that supports my authenticity is one that doesn’t have harsh rules, standards, or codes and understands everyone is unique in their own way and brings their own personal experiences and knowledge to the table at every conversation and in every action they make. I feel most empowered to be my most authentic self whenever I’m around my friends hanging out, being around the people who make me laugh and smile every day really lets me be my true self and shed away any fake personality I put on around others and be my real most comfortable self.

This is a photo where I felt most myself. I was hanging out with a friend and I had make-up on, and I really liked the outfit I had on. I felt like I was expressing my true self in that moment.

Ryan from Nevada shares:

What does the word “authentic” mean to you?
To be original. Represents faithfully.

What does it mean for you to be created to be your authentic self?
I don’t really know. Maybe just be myself. 

What does it look like for you to have a community or church that supports you in your authenticity?
Sr High group, I feel comfortable with them. 

When and where do you feel empowered or comfortable being your most authentic self?
Cooler classrooms and at church and being on stage leading worship.

Photo Explanation: I felt happy of graduating from high school. I was a senior in 12th grade through the school year of 2022-23, and I graduated at Thomas & Mack Center at U.N.L.V.


Jordyn from Nevada shares:

 I, myself—Jordyn, feel most empowered at anytime, anyplace, and anywhere. I won’t and will not let anything stop me from showing myself to the world. The empowerment that I feel is in making my own decisions. Feeling that I can do anything and not have much doubt in myself is a true gift. Being an African American woman, it is a blessing and honor to see how far I will go to achieve my goals in life. To me, having a community that empowers me to be my true authentic self, means always having back support and moral support. Having people to cheer you on along the sidelines through the thick and thin. Always giving compliments, or even starting a conversation and just giving input without feeling hated. I’ve experienced this kind of support in my school and church.

Oliver from Missouri shares:

The word authentic has taken many different forms throughout my life—from a basic textbook definition to what it is today, my view on the word “authentic” is constantly changing. For me now it means being genuine, even when it hurts. Being authentic starts with being brutally honest with yourself and coming to terms that not everything in your life is going to be fair. Accepting there will be struggles and pain is all a part of being human. God created me to be changed in many ways. God always has a plan and even if we as humans can’t understand it, living out your story and sharing it is all a part of the mission God has sent us all on. Having a community that supports me in my authenticity is something I’m still trying to find. While I’ve grown up in the same church since I was born, all the actions people try to pass as okay due to religion has made it hard to trust. As a transgender individual, I have had to come to terms with the fact that not everyone will love and accept me for who God made me to be. I have realized that church camps are where I have found “family.” Even though we don’t live near each other and can only worship together a few weeks a year, the family we have built with God beside us is what truly matters. I feel my most authentic self at these camps like Leadership Lab. Being able to connect with other youth holding on to their faith through torment and pain makes me not feel alone. These are the places I hope to spread all over the world and create the environment all the time. To me, being authentic is about being truthful to yourself first and a lot of us need others to support us while making all these large realizations. 

This picture was taken in a dorm at Confirmation Camp. I was there as what is called a Mentor Camper; it’s a small group of high schoolers who work with the adults at camp to run small groups and engage the kids. I instantly felt at home. I was loud and energetic and non-apologetic. Normally I am reserved and scared but during this and almost every other week that I have spent at youth camps, I have felt free to be me!

Thank you for sharing! How are you created to be authentic? Where have you found spaces that allow you to be your full authentic self? 

 

Written by: Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

Beyond the Beads: Unveiling the Spirit of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras, with its vibrant colors, soulful music, and rich foods, is more than just a party that disrupts the everyday life—it’s a celebration that surpasses the ordinary, captivating the world with its infectious joy. The soulful tunes of jazz, blues, and traditional brass bands infuse the air with a distinctive musical flavor, while the rich, flavorful foods, from gumbo to king cake, create a culinary carnival in every bite.

Yet, beyond the lively parades, Mardi Gras is the heartbeat of New Orleans, deeply entwined with the spirit of community. It’s a time for locals to come together, strengthening social bonds, and fostering unity. The parades, featuring diverse community groups, schools, and organizations, exemplify the inclusivity that defines this celebration. Mardi Gras provides a space for people to revel in their individuality, to show up authentically as they truly are created to be and share in the collective joy.

As the last float passes and the city cleans up the confetti, the spirit of Mardi Gras lingers—the unity of the community, the echoes of brass bands, and the stories shared over hearty meals. It’s more than a party; it’s a reflection of rich history, cultural diversity, and communal spirit. Mardi Gras is a testament to New Orleans’ resilience, diversity, and unyielding spirit. As the city looks ahead to the upcoming year’s festivities, one can’t help but wonder—what stories will Mardi Gras unfold next? The potential is as limitless and dynamic as the celebration it embodies.

 

Written by: Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

Faith Lived Out Loud at The Gathering

One of the many ways we live out our faith in action is through volunteering. There are many different ways that this can be done through the Gathering and what better place to do it than in New Orleans with thousands of your best friends! Check out the Gathering’s website for more information on how to get involved as a volunteer. 

Learn how Anna went from being participant to volunteer and what that experience has meant to her—

Hello! My name is Anna Thompson and I attended the 2009 Gathering in New Orleans as a youth participant. That was the first time I understood just how big the ELCA is. It was wonderful to be surrounded by other young people living their faith out loud just like I was. 

I volunteered in 2012, again in New Orleans, while I was in college. I was so excited to be able to help facilitate the experiences I’d had just three years before.

In 2018, I was able to volunteer again. I’d moved to Texas and Houston was only a 5 hour drive away. I was in a different place in my life, as a full-fledged adult this time, but I still had an amazing experience. Plus, I got to connect with friends from previous Gatherings, my home congregation, synod, and college! 

Why do you like to volunteer? 

I love volunteering at the Gathering because I love getting to help pull it off. The Gathering was a key moment in my high school life and I love knowing that I’m a small piece in that puzzle for the new generation. This cycle, I’ll attend as an adult leader for my congregation in Fort Worth, TX. I’m excited to experience the Gathering from a 3rd perspective and help the youth from my congregation experience their first Gathering!

What’s one thing you’re looking forward to in New Orleans? 

I’m looking forward to walking down Canal Street after Mass Gathering, especially closing worship. The rainbow of shirts on display as we are physically, and theologically, sent out into the world is a memory I treasure of my previous two Gatherings in New Orleans!

Fill in the Blank: “I am Created to Be Joyful! ” 

Written by: Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

A Story of God’s Resurrection Hope | Bethlehem Lutheran Church, New Orleans

We are Easter people who believe in the resurrection hope of Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we have hope beyond the grave. We know that death is not the end. In Christ’s death, there is life, and we have hope in that new life. In this world there are places we see glimpses of this resurrection hope of Jesus.

In New Orleans, there is a Lutheran congregation shining this resurrection hope of Jesus in their community. Founded in 1888, Bethlehem is a remarkable church with a rich history of service that goes deep into the community. Bethlehem is a beacon of light on a hill in a weary world.

In Talks at the Desk: Our Black Church, Ep. 3 that premiered in February 2022, Pr. Ben Groth describes Bethlehem by saying, “We’re not one of the big fancy churches on a big fancy avenue. You know, we’re a small, scrappy church trying to do a lot with, with not very much in resources.” That being said, Bethlehem is absolutely a transformational church to its community. Bethlehem is a church that doesn’t just talk-the-talk, they live their faith out loud and have showed up for their community in some pretty amazing ways. This faith community models what it looks like to trust in the Holy Spirit, follow Jesus, and be in partnership with God. 

It’s incredible how the simple question of “what if?” can turn a church fish-fry into a story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.  This small “scrappy church” has begun a community meal that is currently serving about 600 free, no-questions-asked, hot meals four times each week. In the video, Bethlehem’s Council vice president, Brandon Blake, says,

“We just don’t want to be the brick church on the corner of Dryades and Washington. We want to be, a lighthouse, a beacon, you know, somewhere where you can go for assistance somewhere where someone can help you in some way.”

In this episode, you can see how the Spirit is pouring out through Bethlehem as they not only feed the community but have also taken a leap of faith and are now building affordable homes. What’s miraculous about this story is that they purchased the land and waited patiently and with hope in the Spirit, discerning how God intended for it to be used.

Nicolette Peñaranda, Program Director for ELCA African Descent Ministries and Interactive Learning Creative Expressions Manager for the 2024 Gathering, shares that “Bethlehem is a special place that is doing something that none else has done in our tradition.” This is a church that is committed to loving one’s neighbor. Take note, this small congregation that is understaffed and under-paid is finding inspiring ways of pouring their heart, soul, and funds into the community in ways that do not directly benefit them. This is a church that is not focused inward, but rather on the ways God is calling them to abundantly love their surrounding community.

In the video, Blake sums it up like this: 

“What is better than to serve others? What, shows your true heart more than you being there for someone else? Not just yourself, not just, you know, the person next to you or your neighbor, but being there for as many people as you can. And in many ways is, you know, it always doesn’t translate to giving out meals. It might be giving someone a ride or just go and drop off a meal to someone, or, you know, just trying to be involved because, you know, we’re not islands, we’re not alone in this life. You know, we may come in and go out by ourselves, but there’s a lot of contact and, you know, involvement in the middle. So you know, you gotta be open to that.”

Thank you, Bethlehem, for being a beacon of light and hope in the city of New Orleans.

Originally premiered by the ELCA in a four-part series of  “Talks at the Desk” during Black History Month on February 17, 2022. 

Learn more about Bethlehem Lutheran Church and the goodness they are up to on their website and follow Bethlehem on Facebook.

Written by: Bobbi Cyr (she/her)

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!