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A North Dakotan's-eye-view . . . Youth and adult
representatives from the Berthold and Carpio Lutheran churches
filled 42 seats in the Superdome at New Orleans among the 37,000
participants who attended the ELCA Gathering, held July 18-22.
By Caroline Downs
“This trip was never intended to be a vacation,” Pastor Christoph Schmidt, who serves Zion Lutheran Church in Berthold and Carpio Lutheran Church in Carpio, said about traveling 30 hours one way in a bus with 35 youth and six other adults to attend the ELCA’s Gathering for teens in New Orleans, held July 18-22.
He continued, “Aspects of it were vacation-like, but the purpose went beyond going somewhere for the heck of it. This was an immersion experience for the kids, and for a lot of rural North Dakota kids, a lot of times their comfort zones were challenged.”
The Gathering is a national youth event organized every three years by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that attracts thousands of teens to celebrate, practice and build on their relationships with God and the church. The program included guest speakers, service projects, bands and other musicians, small group Bible studies, exhibits and displays, and activities offered throughout the city of New Orleans, all based on the idea, “Citizens with the saints.”
The Gathering website described the event’s purpose by stating, “We gather as citizens with the saints to learn to love like Jesus by practicing discipleship through peacemaking that works for justice.”
The youth groups decided last November to attend the Gathering, which didn’t leave them much time for raising the necessary money to cover expenses. Pastor Christoph was heartened, however, by the response he had from teens in his two churches.
“Once we got the word out we were going, it was like an avalanche,” he said. “I was thinking it would be great if we could get 10 or 12 kids to go, so this was beyond my wildest expectations. We were one of the largest groups from western North Dakota.”
In fact, 31 youth from Pastor Christoph’s two churches committed to the trip, along with four teens from Bread of Life Lutheran Church in Minot, where his wife Taryn Montgomery serves as pastor. “We filled up a whole bus,” Pastor Christoph said.
The long drive to New Orleans was broken up by a stay in St. Louis, Missouri, that included a visit to the Gateway Arch and Six Flags St. Louis, while the return trip took the group through Memphis, TN, where they toured the National Civil Rights Museum. Once the group reached New Orleans, they were immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of urban life and the culture and flavors of that particular place.
Pastor Christoph was aware most of his charges were unfamiliar with the setting of a metropolis. “The traffic, the diversity of people, the skyscrapers,” he listed, “not to mention the Gathering itself, where an estimated 37,000 participants were in the Superdome. You can imagine the energy of those gatherings! That’s something we would probably never experience here in North Dakota.”
He was referring to the mass meetings held each night in the Superdome, where teens were brought together to worship through prayer, meditations and music shared by popular speakers and some of the best acts in contemporary Christian music.
Steve Helfrich, one of the adult guides from Berthold, was impressed with the evening mass gatherings and the broad view of the church offered. “The best part for me was the energy and fellowship of the gathering events,” he said. “I was able to meet unique people and hear stories that I can carry with me.”
He continued, “We found out we are part of a much, much larger and more diverse thing than we know. The church they’re describing and celebrating in New Orleans is our church.”
Justice in action works up a sweat . . . Youth group members, l-r,
Daniel Gallagher, Jared Hamilton, Garrett Dahle and Alex
Schoenberg-Carton provide a bit of muscle and sweat as they work
in the Guerrilla Garden in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans during the
ELCA Gathering held July 18-22. The boys installed bricks and pavers
while they completed a service project as part of the Gathering's
program for Lutheran youth, while friends Austin Kilene and Eric
Schoenberg-Carton can be seen working behind them at left.
Justice, discipleship and
The participants had a full schedule from morning to night. Each of the Gathering’s three full days followed a theme, including “Practicing Justice,” “Practicing Discipleship,” and “Practicing Peacemaking.” Pastor Christoph and other adults who agreed to attend the Gathering as guides met with the youth for five preparatory sessions before going.
“You can’t really explain the experiences beforehand, though,” said Pastor Christoph. “The word ‘practicing’ is important there.”
The group’s first day was focused on justice, and the teens were assigned to work in two community gardens established in the Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina destroyed houses and other buildings on those blocks in 2005. “It was a powerful day for the kids,” Pastor Christoph said. “Neighborhood members would come up to us and strike up conversations with the youth.”
He described how the residents told stories about losing their houses and their loved ones as they rode out the hurricane and survived the aftermath. “Hearing their stories really impacted the kids,” he said.
Steve Helfrich agreed. “We were all in the Ninth Ward, but we’re all going to have a different story about that day,” he said. “You don’t know what to expect.”
He was impressed by Mr. Joe, a dedicated volunteer for the Guerrilla Garden who supervised and assisted the different church groups working in the two plots.
Other members of the group were captivated by Mr. Smitty, a resident of the neighborhood. “He came and sat and talked to all of us,” said Nicole Johnson, 15, of Carpio. “He told us his Hurricane Katrina story and explained how he didn’t want to leave his house and how people were turning on each other.”
“I quit working and just listened to him,” said adult guide Jodi Johnson, adding that Mr. Smitty’s descriptions of the hurricane and the situation in the following days changed the view she had of the catastrophe, especially the looting shown on television. “He explained how they were hungry, they were thirsty. You don’t realize people were actually worried about dying because they couldn’t get their medications or food or water. It was good for the kids to hear him.”
Nicole agreed. “He’s supposed to be coming out with a book about it soon,” she said, adding that hearing him allowed her to draw comparisons with the 2011 flood in the Mouse River Valley. “I love life stories, and his made me think.”
And while Mr. Smitty gave the kids a break from their garden labors that morning, the group accomplished a variety of gratifying tasks, including pulling weeds and installing bricks and pavers in two locations to create grilling areas. “The best part of the trip was seeing the appreciation of Joe for helping him out with the gardens,” said Nick Helfrich, a sophomore at Berthold High School.
In Nick’s experience at the Gathering, helping others took on many forms. “It’s not just helping them physically,” he said. “You can help them by talking with them and listening to their stories.”
The second day focused on discipleship, with the group taking part in scores of interactive displays focusing on some aspect of the theme. Pastor Christoph described one such station where Palestinian, Israeli and Bosnian youth met with the teens and talked about their experiences with various types of barriers.
He also noted exhibits where the youth could make donations, such as the “Locks of Love” and “100 Wells Project” programs. “There were maybe a hundred stations for the youth in this convention hall,” he said.
The third morning’s charge of peacemaking saw the Berthold and Carpio teens released in small groups in the French Quarter, with an adult guide and instructions to complete a scavenger hunt with digital cameras. “They had to look for things like a cross, literally or creatively,” said Pastor Christoph, “take photos, and interact with any residents they met.”
The French Quarter lived up to its reputation, deserved or not, with the results of alcohol and substance abuse obviously in view. “For many of the youth, their immediate visceral reaction was one of disgust,” said Pastor Christoph. “They didn’t want to be there.”
He used their negative responses as a springboard for reflection. “We talked about that,” he said. “We asked what they thought of that and talked about the consequences of those choices.”
for Pastor Christoph’s
call to ministry
Pastor Christoph traced his interest in youth ministry and his own service as a pastor to his personal experiences at the Gathering held in 2006. “My call to ministry is based on my experiences in youth ministry in Seattle and came directly out of attending the Gathering in San Antonio,” he said, adding that one of his priorities now is to help kids of all ages have a positive experience with the church.
“We talk about the church not being a building,” he said, “that it isn’t four walls, but how do we actually practice that? It’s about how we raise our youth to have faith to look outward in the world.”
He continued, “The Gathering does that. This is where tens of thousands of young Christians come together, and they see ways God can work through them in ways God wasn’t working through them before. Their view of the global church is exponentially exploded.”
Jodi agreed. “If we could unite all the different denominations--they have so many of the same goals--we could accomplish so much more,” she said.
“It was amazing seeing and hearing about changes, because of the church,” Nick added.
The Gathering was open to kids entering their freshmen year to those who had just graduated from high school. Pastor Christoph was especially pleased to see so many younger teens participate from his two churches.
“Hopefully, that will build energy and keep the program going,” he said, adding he would like to attend the next Gathering already planned for Detroit, Michigan, in 2015. “There are already younger kids in junior high who are looking forward to going in three years.”
As one of the parents and adult youth leaders, Jodi praised members of their group for representing their communities and the state so well. She encouraged other parents to consider sending their children to the next Gathering.
“It’s good for the kids to see outside of their little box of the world,” she said. “It’s neat there’s such a large group of kids who experienced something different together and can bring that back to their communities.”
One stated purpose of the Gathering is to immerse the participants in the three core practices of justice, discipleship and peacemaking in order to continue those practices when they return to their home communities.
Nicole was ready to do just that. “[The Gathering] changed a lot of people’s perspectives, including mine,” she said. She already had a service project in mind to help with flood recovery efforts at Mouse River Park. “I grew up camping there, and it’s still a mess. There’s more that needs to be done.”
Sixteen-year-old Jessi Johnson, Jodi’s daughter, also had a broader view of her impact. “I learned that it may seem like a big task to fix the world, but really we just need to look at it differently,” she said. “If each of us does our best to do something little, the world can be changed.”
She explained she heard several stories during the Gathering from people whose efforts to help others resulted in major changes, but grand actions weren’t always necessary. “You have to bring it back home,” she said. “If you can bring a little bit of that out in your home life, that even makes a difference.”
Jessi wanted to share her experiences through her photos at an upcoming church dinner. “I thought I could set up a PowerPoint presentation and some of us kids could talk about the missions trip,” she said. “Now, I can take these memories and share them with everyone.”
For Pastor Christoph, those kind of decisions and local actions may be one of the best outcomes of the journey to the Gathering and back again.
“My hope and prayer is they see the church is bigger than they could have imagined,” he said, “and that they see God is bigger than anyone could have imagined.”
Telling tales, making friends . . . New Orleans Ninth Ward resident
Mr. Smitty, center, holds court with youth from Lutheran churches
in Berthold and Carpio as he shares stories of life in the
neighborhood before and after Hurricane Katrina. The teens
were working in the community garden during the Lutheran Gathering
in New Orleans, when Mr. Smitty approached them and bridged
generational, cultural and racial gaps with his life history.