UPDATE: Stop to help people  in Peoria, Ill., featured in newspaper there.

First stop: Peoria, Ill.

Busses filled with more than 450 ELCA teens and adults are rolling out of northeastern Minnesota today. They’re headed to the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans to help in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

On their way down, they’re spending time in Peoria and Memphis to help people there, too. What follows is the story I wrote about these teens in December. You’re welcome to leave them a note in the comments section below.

Amanda Kurtz is a ninth grader who loves math, dreams of being an architect and participates on tennis and dance teams at her high school in Aitkin, Minn., a one-stoplight town of 2,000 best known for its annual parade of decorated ice fishing houses.

She also volunteers at a soup kitchen 30 miles away and at a weekly community meal served by her Aitkin congregation, First Lutheran Church. Her plans for 2009 include several days of volunteer work in Illinois, Louisiana and Tennessee.

“I’ve never had the experience of traveling somewhere to help people for a while,” said 15-year-old Amanda.  “It’s important to do this and understand why God wants me to.”

Amanda is one of 461 teens and adult leaders from the Northeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) attending the 4.7-million member denomination’s July 22-26 youth gathering in New Orleans.

As preparation, synod participants are involved in a yearlong justice awareness program.  “The Synod Journey,” as the program is called, involves prayer, biblical reflection and service projects, such as clothing drives.

“We encourage congregations to take a whole year for leadership development and justice immersion,” said Catherine Anderson, synod youth ministry coordinator.

Amanda said the word “justice” makes her think of the police, courtrooms and Judge Judy.  She’s eager to learn how it applies to God and issues such as hunger and poverty.

“The kids are very curious to know what it means to follow the justice of Jesus,” said Kurt Hagesteun, youth and family minister, First Lutheran Church.

Up to 36,000 teens and youth leaders are expected in New Orleans. Part of the event includes volunteer work across the city, demonstrating the ELCA theme: “God’s work, our hands.”  The beneficiaries include residents still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that battered the Gulf Coast.

“You can change people’s lives a lot by helping a little,” said Kristi Hoge, 16, another Aitkin participant. “So when you see people in need, you need to help.”

Lutherans account for more than 50,000 volunteers in the Katrina recovery effort to date, according to the Rev. Kevin A. Massey, who directs Lutheran Disaster Response, a collaborative ministry of the ELCA and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

“We’re excited that the national youth gathering will continue this witness,” Massey said. “It sends a message to the people of New Orleans that we will not forget you.”

Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the ELCA Youth Gathering is the largest effort mounted to assist the city since Katrina.

“It’s a wonderful expression of humanity,” Romig said. “I can’t wait to see all of these young people engaged in our city.”

Ten buses will carry the Northeastern Minnesota Synod contingent 1,400 miles to New Orleans. On the way, they’ll engage in volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity and other organizations in Peoria, Ill., and Memphis, Tenn. In Memphis they’ll also visit the National Civil Rights Museum and the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum.

The goal is not only to help but to be transformed through listening to residents and learning about local history, arts and culture.

“What we do in New Orleans is stuff we need to do everywhere in the world,” Amanda said.  “For me, it starts here in Aitkin.”