Or, Why I will be riding a bus for 27 hours June 26-27
These next five Lutheran Youth Gatherings are the reason I keep going back and taking youth with me.
1991 Dallas – My congregation in Custer had never sent youth to a Gathering before, but six of us signed up, a small group compared to our massive youth group, and joined the Bear Butte Conference trip, taking the bus from Rapid City, SD to Dallas. We were in two arenas for the mass gatherings but our group was, in my opinion, fortunate enough to have the Jay Beech Band as our music leader for all but our last mass gathering. I can still remember Jay teaching us the actions to his song Baptized, probably the fist time I made the sign of the cross on myself. Called to Freedom was the theme of the Gathering and the Interaction Center theme was The Fair.
1994 Atlanta – I spent the summer after high school graduation working at YMCA Camp St. Croix in Hudson, WI (just across the St. Croix River from St.Paul) but I flew to Atlanta mid-summer and joined my youth group. Dakota Road, who had led the music at every South Dakota Synod Youth Gathering of my youth, was the house band and they were fabulous. I had one of my mountain-top experiences one evening in the dome, so blown away by the speaker and the connection with my peers. I love the YMCA but I think the juxtaposition of working at that camp and then attending the Youth Gathering was formative; it convinced me to spend my college summers at a church camp in intentional Christian community. The experience probably steered me to the particular camp at which I ended up working. The theme of the Gathering was 2 Be Alive and the Interaction Center theme was Noah’s pArk.
1997 New Orleans – I spent three summers on staff at Christikon but between my junior and senior years I worked at the Dodge Nature Center in West St.Paul. I was going through a lot with my epilepsy diagnosis and it was good to be near my doctor in the Twin Cities. This also allowed me to serve on Hotel Life at the Youth Gathering. Tom VonFischer was the head of Hotel Life that year and he had all of us volunteers take turns telling stories during morning worship in the hotel ballrooms. I had given messages as a camp counselor but this was different because I was specifically instructed to tell a personal story. I ended up talking about the Habitat for Humanity Spring Break Trip I participated in as a sophomore at Concordia College. An adult leader came up to me afterwards and told me he had grown up in a community like the one I described–the power of story! On the last night, a big party for all participants, Pastor Marilyn Breckenridge, the head of Hotel Life for my property, and I walked all over and talked about, among other things, life as a parish pastor. Several years later, when I was writing my entrance essay for ordination candidacy, this conversation was woven into the essay. I never got to see the kids from my home congregation in 1997 because they did not get chosen in the lottery (see 2000 St. Louis). The Gathering theme was River of Hope and the theme of the Interaction Center, the last one my parents coordinated, was Tuesdays.
2000 St. Louis – Because so many churches did not get to attend the 1997 Gathering, in 2000 the ELCA started putting on two Gatherings back-to-back. I had finished one year of graduate school and was working as a chaplain at Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp but the director gave me the time to go to St. Louis. My Hotel Life team of four was posted at Henry VIII, an airport property soon to be bulldozed to make room for an expanded runway, so they were not fixing anything. Not only that, but someone had died in the pool the week before so it was off limits. Thank goodness the four of us got along really well. Dance With Me, because of the theme, was a popular song during the mass gatherings. The theme was Dancing at the Crossroads. I have never experienced such mugginess in my life as those two summer weeks at the convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
2003 Atlanta – To make up for Henry VIII, the four of us were posted in either the downtown Hyatt or the Marriott Marquis three years later. I had just finished my Lutheran Year in St. Paul, spent three weeks as a volunteer in the kitchen at Holden Village, and was going from Atlanta to Duluth, MN for a Split Rock Writing Workshop. That was a great summer with a great two weeks in Atlanta. I absolutely loved our Hotel Life team and appreciated being at a downtown hotel. The theme was Ubuntu: I am because we are.