Day 3: Wednesday, June 27th: Space Center and First Mass Gathering
We started the day by putting on our Gathering wristbands, signaling that the Gathering was truly here. After enjoying some lovely breakfast pastries and muffins donated by Deli Express that were sent to our hotel, we met my friend Josh and his group from Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Eau Claire and headed to Space Center Houston. It seemed like half of the Gathering was there! It was packed and busy beyond measure, but that is the Gathering: lots of excited teenagers everywhere! We did have one bad thing happen on the way in which Kim’s van took a rock to the windshield, cracking it. We think we will be ok with it driving but it did put an interesting start on our day.
Once we got into the Space Center Houston we split up into groups and went exploring. We saw stuff about the planned trips to deep space and Mars, explored the International Space Station and what it is like to live in space, and much more. Most of the group ended up in the very long line for the tram tour of the Space Center. We saw where plans are being made and astronauts are training for upcoming missions, went into rocket park that includes a fully built and operational Saturn V rocket that was going supposed to take Apollo 18 to the moon, and much more. It was a fun day exploring this major Houston attraction.
Before we even left Space Center Houston, I ordered us pizza and wings from Papa John’s, which was delivered to our rooms. After gorging themselves on food, some kids went to the pool to swim, some hung out in their rooms, and at least one adult (me) took a nap. Then it was time for the first official item of the ELCA Youth Gathering: the Mass Gathering at NRG Stadium!
One of the things I love about the Gathering for myself is that it is one large reunion. I don’t have a big blood-relation family, but I have a HUGE Lutheran family and all day it was great to run into so many people I know and love, even people I haven’t seen in many years. I had people yell my name and run to me and I did the same thing to them. I know that throughout the week I will see more and more and I hope to run into actual blood family tomorrow when we are at Interactive Learning. One of the coolest was reunions was seeing some kids and adults from our Pine Ridge Mission Trip in the summer of 2016 who happened to sit in the section next to us at the Mass Gathering. An awesome moment.
Speaking of awesome: the Mass Gathering is an awesome experience every time! It took us a bit to get into NRG Stadium but once we did we headed up where my friend Josh found us a great spot in section 352, looking directly at the stage. Some went and got snacks, others talked and texted, and we enjoyed some of the pre-show music until it was time to get on our feet and rock out to God.
The Mass Gathering is a time of worship, of dance and song, of listening and thinking. It is inspirational. It pumps you up, makes you cry, and opens your eyes to the power of God’s love in Jesus Christ that flows from these young people. Tonight we danced to LZ7, sang with Ginny Owens, moved with the Gathering House Band, and were inspired by speakers like Bryan Stevenson, Rev. Tuhina Rasche, and Deborah Mouton. Even Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, brought greetings and prayer. Our theme tonight was that God calls and we heard time and again that we are called to bring the love of Christ into the world to those who are forgotten and that we are called to bring about change and give hope to all. It was an awesome experience! I was so proud of how our kids fully engaged in the Mass Gathering and how they danced, sang, listened, and interacted with each other.
After making our way through the crowds we walked back to the hotel. That ten minute walk is so awesome compared to Detroit where we walked 30 minutes to get to a bus and then was on that bus for another 45. We debriefed the day, talked about expectations for our Interactive Learning Day tomorrow, and prayed. We look forward to another great day at the Gathering!
Day 4: Interactive Learning Day, June 28th, 2018.
The day started early as I drove some of my pastor friends over to a Kroeger’s grocery store to get some supplies. We picked up more fruit, water, some pop, and Chicken ‘N a Biscuit crackers. They kids have some weird tastes. They also wanted more close pins so that they could “pin” people during the Gathering.
After getting back and having Damien and Jered not only help get our stuff to our rooms but helping my friend Mara with her stuff, we headed out to the NRG Center for Interactive Learning. Interactive Learning is a time for out students to encounter God in a variety of experiences, both fun and educational, and a time to see God at work in a variety of ways. These experiences can be active or passive, quiet or loud, individual or in a group. Personally, this is one of the best parts of a Youth Gathering and a great opportunity for kids to really explore their faith and be challenged in the ways we look at the world.
Once we got to the NRG Center, we split off into groups so that the kids could explore the center on their own speed and time. Some of the experiences that stood out were doing a 360 Virtual Reality presentation about Malawi (our Companion Synod in Africa) and the important of crop diversity and management that is helping to improve people’s lives; exploring ways to stop human trafficking, hunger, and the plight of refugees; making bags for people in need; learning about our gifts using a Star Wars theme (I loved this one), making bracelets and enjoying a hammock village, and just visiting booths and meeting people.
One of the best parts of Interactive Learning is running into people, sharing swag, getting pins, bracelets, buttons, and more from organizations and individuals. There is a sense of openness, connection, and camaraderie among the participants. A variety of spaces were there for people to interact with each other and even an adult area for adults to take a break from their kids. This is sorely needed as today is a chance for both kids and adult to connect with God and each other without the other breathing down their neck. For me, it was again an awesome day to make connections with people I care about. I connected with my nephew Tyler early in the day, ran into former camp counselor colleagues/seminary classmates; saw many other colleagues, and ran into one of my dearest friends, Bishop Kristen Kuempel and her daughter Linnea. I haven’t seen Kristen in many, many years as they live in Washington and I hadn’t seen Linnea in at least 12 years or longer, which is sad since I was godfather at her baptism. I have to admit that I got a little emotional after seeing them and spending a few minutes chatting. It is a reminder that the Holy Spirit keeps us connected in love and friendship even when we rarely have a chance to see each other.
Kids grabbed lunch from one of the concession stands in the center or at one of the food trucks outside. Let’s say that the Starbucks was very popular. Some also went to the Gathering Store as well. We met up at 4:30 pm to do the bumper cars together and then headed out to go get in line to enter the NRG Stadium for the Mass Gathering.
As we waited to get into the Stadium, the Lord decided to give us a shower to cool us off. It also inspired the Gathering to open the stadium early so we got to go in about a half hour earlier than normal. We decided to go back to our same section, 352, and we all made it there safely despite groups of human chains attempting to clothesline or crush us (note: don’t move in a large crowd in a connecting chain. It is a danger to everyone. Have a plan for getting to your destination and communicate it clearly). Kids went and got some food and they helped me save seats for the group from First Lutheran Church in Cumberland. Per usual.
We had another Mass Gathering singing, dancing, and being inspired in our faith. Our theme tonight was “love” and we heard stories of how the love of God helped restore people, inspire faith, and change people’s lives. We heard from Caroline Meeker who came back from the brink of death due to anorexia when she was 9 years old and how the love of God restored her. The Rev. Aaron Fuller shared how God’s love has sustained him as a wrestling coach, Navy chaplain, and pastor and how that love changes lives. Deacon Erin Power talked about how the love of God in Jesus Christ showed her that the church is a place where is accepted and belongs. Marlon Hall brought the house down as he spoke of God’s love that brings resurrection and that love restores hope and that the love of God can never be taken away from us. He brought his small daughter Phoenix onto the stage as an example of God’s love and made most of our girls cry. We heard a lot of great music as well from the House Band and a drum and bugle band.
Once the Mass Gathering was done we headed back to the hotel where along the way I decided to carry Pastor Tim Schmidt, from First Lutheran in Cumberland, on my back. We debriefed the day, talked about tomorrow, and prayed. Tomorrow is Synod Day and also the only day they really get to sleep in. Thank you again for following us on this journey and many blessings to all of you!
Day 5: Thursday, June 29th. Synod Day
Today began with a run to Target to get stuff for the kids while those same kids had the opportunity to have most of the morning off. Some slept. Some swam down at the pool or laid out. Others just chilled in their rooms. It was a chance to recharge as we are at the halfway point of the Youth Gathering itself and the last time during the Gathering where we could sleep past 7 am.
We got together at 11 am to eat some lunch, which was make your own sandwiches, chips, fruit, and drinks. I left before the group as I agreed to help keep kids active before they came into the Grand ballroom, but everyone was doing just fine so my friend Mara and I just did crowd control. Kim & Tillie brought the kids down at 11:45 and they found spots to sit and Synod Day began with some songs.
The theme of Synod Day was Grace. We were reminded that grace is something we receive which we do not deserve and don’t ask for but we receive anyways. We were reminded that, because of God’s grace, we belong. There were fun games to get to know others and though those games we were put into groups of four where discussions happened. We heard God’s Word from Bishop Rick Hoyme who is retiring as bishop of our Synod on June 30th. This is the last thing he is doing as bishop. We sang, prayed, received the Lord’s Supper, and blessed Bishop Hoyme for his retirement. The kids sat on the floor while the pastor’s and chaperones sat in chairs and misbehaved! Synod Day is a chance for kids to connect with other kids from around the Synod. Let’s say that many pins were made and distributed.
After Synod Day concluded we had some time to chill and relax while we waited for the pizza and wings to be delivered to the hotel room. During that time, the group decided by vote to go back to our normal spot in section 352 instead of heading to the floor. After they devoured the pizza and wings like a pack of wolves who haven’t been fed for a few weeks, we got geared up and headed to NRG Stadium for the Mass Gathering.
We donned some glow sticks for our Mass Gathering time tonight and we heard some great music at the start from Rachel Kurtz which got the kids singing and dancing. Speaking of music, Tauren Wells blew the roof off the stadium and the kids asked if we could kidnap him and bring him back to Boyceville. I said no, but I better keep an eye on them!
The theme was grace and the freeing power of God’s grace for us in Jesus Christ and our speakers reflected that. Rev. Will Starkweather gave a powerful witness about how “there is grace for that” as he struggled as a teenager and young adult with harming himself. Elizabeth Peter and Jasmine Seguarra powerfully spoke of grace in their own lives. Michaela Shelley, who is living with a fatal disease, talked about how grace helped her to start a support group that touches people all over the world and gives grace to those young people suffering from horrible diseases. Our final speaker of the night was Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber who encouraged us to be people of grace and renounce the voices that so often stop us from living boldly and fully into the world.
The Mass Gathering ended with a great rendition of the song “This is Me” from the movie “The Greatest Showman” as 1,000 extras danced on stage and throughout the floor. It was a great way to end a Mass Gathering, but our night wasn’t finished. We had Communion Server training! We are communion servers Sunday morning for worship so we headed to the lower bowl for instructions. I went and got out packet and we report to section 106 where were are doing communion with a church from Maryland. We broke into teams and tried to figure out exactly what we are doing. To be honest, we aren’t fully confident but I know it will all work out in the end. It was weird to see NRG Stadium with all the lights on. We did a quick meeting in the concourse and the group headed back. Instead of going to my room, I went to another area for a farewell gathering for Bishop Hoyme. Then it was bed time. Tomorrow is Service Day so pray for us as we do service in Houston! Thanks for reading!
Day 6: Service Learning Day/Final Mass Gathering
Today we started nice and early as we had to be over to the NRG Center for our Service Learning at 7:30 am. Kim and I went and did a quick Kroeger run and also picked up McDonald’s for the kids for breakfast as a change of pace. It was a little close getting everybody ready and up but we did it and made it to our bus launch, which was bus number 17.
When you arrive at the bus launch they don’t tell you what you are going to do that day until you get on the bus. We were with a church from Stattford and we hung out for a bit until it was time to go. As we waited, some took the opportunity to actually wake up or get a little cat nap in. Being that it was the final day of the Gathering and our earliest morning since we left, tiredness was expected. Once we got on the bus, we heard what our project was going to be: working at the Houston Food Bank. The Houston Food Bank is the largest food bank in the United States, serving 800,000 yearly. Of that 800,000, only 3 percent are homeless, which was a surprising stat to us. We got instructions and then proceeded onto the floor to begin our work.
Our job at the food bank was to pack boxes with whatever category of food was that table. We got instructed in what we were doing and how to do it. We worked in groups of eight or more and at my table was Bishop Rick Hoyme on his last day as bishop of our synod. He gets very excited when Barry Manilow comes over the sound system. Each group boxed up items that had already been sorted and cleaned. Some had canned goods, dry goods, beverages, condiments, personal items, and more. There is a conveyer system around you that is bringing you the stuff to put in boxes, where you put your completed box, and an empty containers of the product you boxed up. Our kids worked really hard and other than Emma and Megan causing pop to spray all over them, we didn’t have any mishaps. There was great energy in the room as people helped each other and worked toward a common goal.
We worked really hard and it was taxing work. But in the end, we did some amazing numbers. 25,698 pounds of food as packed while we worked and that translates into 21,415 meals. A great cheer came up as we heard those numbers from Serena, a manager who at one time had to use the Houston Food Banks to survive. We took some pictures and then got our boxed lunches and headed back to the bus to go back to the NRG Arena.
When we got to the arena, there was a celebration of service going on with a variety of activities. However, with us having to be over to the worship service Sunday so early as communion servers, Kim and Tillie took many back to pack and get one more dip into the pool while PB stayed back with those that wanted to do stuff in the arena. After a few hours, they came back to get ready for the last Mass Gathering of the Youth Gathering.
We got loaded up into the PB’s van and headed out for supper at 4 pm. Though PB wanted Texas BBQ, no one else did so we split up between Jack-in-the Box, Five Guys, and Panda Express. After getting our fill, we headed back to the hotel and then walked over to the NRG Stadium for the final Mass Gathering. We again sat in section 352 and the groups from Cumberland and Eau Claire joined us. Much of the pre-Mass Gathering time was spent throwing snap chats to cute guys below us. Always an adventure with our youth! As we got closer to the start, the dancing and singing started and the kids woke up from the tiredness of the day as we learned that God’s Hope Changes Everything.
We heard inspiring stories of hope from Rev. Stephen Bouman, Carson McCullar (who the girls decided needed to be kidnapped and brought back to Boyceville), Joe Davis, Maria Rose Belding, and Jamie Bruesehoff and her daughter Rebekah. The speakers were powerful and moving. The House Band was jamming it out and at one point we did a cool wave using our cell phone lights. Then it was time for the main act: Tenth Avenue North.
Tenth Avenue North rocked it. Kids danced, sang, screamed, hugged, and more. It was a great way to end our final Mass Gathering. We took a group picture from our section 352 as we won’t be there Sunday due to serving communion. We headed back to the hotel for evening debrief, instructions about Sunday, and the end of the Gathering. We are looking forward to the trek home but we will also miss the wonderful people we have met, the fun times we have had, and the hearing again about how Jesus changes everything!
Day 7: Closing Worship and the Road Home: July 1st.
We had an early morning wake up call so that we could pack the vans prior to the Gathering Closing Worship, reporting down to the vans at 6:40 am. We ate the last of our breakfast items and started the walk to the other side of NRG Arena to report as communion servers for the closing worship. We had on our white shirts and khaki’s, the required uniform to serve communion the world over (not really). As some have said, it was “khaki’s for Jesus.” We got over to the loading dock at 7:15 am, which was on time, but had to wait about 20 minutes before we got in. We headed over and picked up our stuff to serve communion which included an umbrella, bread, wine, grape juice, and anointing oil. Once we had everything, we had the long walk (it was a full walk around the stadium) to our section, 106.
This was the first time we would NOT be sitting in our normal section 352. We found our reserved communion server seats and got into our teams. Each team was five people and with sixteen people, I volunteered to go with the other church group in our section who had fourteen, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Aberdeen, Maryland. We took the time to get organized and attempt to figure out exactly how it was going to work, trusting the Holy Spirit would help us figure out how to get five people in a small space to serve communion.
Despite being in a different section, our friends from First Lutheran in Cumberland came and joined us so that Pastor Tim and I’s streak of sitting together at Mass Gatherings is unbroken over the last two Gathering’s. Since we were communion servers for the whole section, we were spread out over the entire section so we weren’t all together which was strange.
During the closing worship, we saw the mosaic that was made up of our pictures from the interaction center up front as well as the boxes from our Synod Day. We heard Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton tell us that not only does Jesus change everything, but that we can be the people that change everything. We sang our favorite songs and also heard a speech from Savannah Sullivan who is from the Young Adults of Global Mission of the ELCA who asked us if we were ready to live for this, to live for Jesus. Then came time to do the offering and since there wasn’t a formal announcement, some confusion occurred if we were to start but we got it going and the kids did a great job. Then it came time for the big communion distribution and the kids rocked it and made it work, even when people didn’t follow instructions. We communed each other and then took our stuff back to the sacristy.
One of the highlights of every Gathering closing worship is the reveal of the next Gathering. The place: Minneapolis, MN! So it will be a really close Gathering for us. I think we will drive there and not fly! 😊 Pastor Tim found out the place from his source ten minutes before they announced. We took our final group picture and then headed back to the hotel to get loaded into the vans. We stopped in Dallas for In-N-Out burger (so good) and made our way to Wichita, KS, pulling in just after 11 pm. Everyone was ready for bed. Monday we will get going early and get home.
It has been a wonderful Youth Gathering. The kids have been great and have fully participated in everything. They were really well behaved and got along well with each other. Huge thanks to Kim Guy and Jamie Tilleson for being great chaperones. Thanks for reading. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2. This Changes Everything.