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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)

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.

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.

10 things to know as you prepare

 

 

Many congregations are just now getting things ready to attend the 2022 Gathering, so if you haven’t started yet– you aren’t behind! Here are 10 things to know as you prepare to bring a congregational group to the 2022 ELCA Youth Gathering.

  1. Utilize the Gathering’s promotional materials to get your community excited about this faith formation experience. We have PowerPoint templates, flyer templates, posters, promotional videos and logos for you to download and use. Consider inviting past participants to share a testimony as well!
  2. Download the Official Gathering Handbook: Tips & Tricks for Adult Leaders. This resource is jammed-packed with pro-tips, sample covenants, timelines, budgets and more. If you’d like a printed version, you can purchase one from our partners at Old Lutheran.
  3. Thinking about raising funds to attend the Gathering can be daunting. However, we know from the testimonies of young people and adult leaders that it’s totally worth it. Depending on your community’s guidelines for COVID-19, you might need to adapt and think creatively on how to raise funds. Early in the pandemic, the Gathering curated a resource of virtual and socially distanced fundraisers.
  4. Connect with your Gathering Synod Coordinator (GSC)! These individuals are trained on all things Gathering and are your go-to contact for your synod. You can contact your GSC by sending them an email on the Gathering’s website.
  5. Sign up and attend the pre-Gathering webinars. Gathering leadership will share what they are planning for next summer during these monthly webinars. Visit the Gathering’s website to see recordings of past webinars or sign up for future ones.
  6. Download the Getting Ready Materials. This curriculum was designed to help introduce your congregational group to the daily themes of the Gathering and start bonding.
  7. There is still financial assistance available for young people attending the Gathering. Up to $300 per youth participant may be provided with a max of 10 youth per congregation. The primary adult leader should apply on behalf of the young person via the application.
  8. Our team is hard at work making plans to ensure that the 2022 Gathering is a safe for our participants. All youth and adult participants, team members, volunteers, staff, and Interactive Learning partners will be required to submit proof of a full COVID-19 vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test (likely 72 hours before arriving). More information around how this information will be submitted will come spring 2022.
  9. Gathering leadership is continuously monitoring the pandemic and guidance for events of our size, but confident that we will have a safe Gathering next summer in Minneapolis. If we get to a point where we are unable to have a safe event and the Gathering is cancelled, deposits will be refunded, with the option for congregations to donate some or all those funds towards the ministry of the Gathering or to forward their deposit to the 2024 Gathering. Visit our COVID-19 page for FAQs and more info.
  10. Don’t do it alone. Invite another trusted adult in your congregation to join you in the planning and logistics!

Know that Gathering leadership is praying for you and your community as you consider attending the 2022 ELCA Youth Gathering. We know that this ministry changes lives and enriches congregational youth ministry, and we hope your congregation will join us.

For more information on the 2022 Gathering, MYLE and the tAble, visit: elca.org/Gathering.