Tomorrow is July 21 which, besides being my dad's birthday, is not a very special or unique day.
Except this July 21 is the day that I, and eight other people from my church, will load up into a charter bus and head down to New Orleans for the ELCA Youth Gathering. I've been calling it the National Youth Gathering, but apparently that's wrong and not so politically correct, because youth from many other nations will be attending.
This will be my third one. The first was in 2000 at St Louis. I had just graduated from college and taken a job as a youth director at a church in Lincoln, Nebraska. I mean JUST taken the job, really. My first day on the job was July 1 and we left for the Gathering around a week afterward. It was a fluke opportunity. Most churches start planning for these Gatherings at least a year in advance. So all the details had been figured out, and I was told when I took the job that all of the adult chaperones had been selected and there was no room for me to go. And I was ok with that. I had never been to a National Youth Gathering before. At the church I attended in high school, the youth group consisted of me and Derek, who was three years younger than me. So, we never really did anything. I was not heartbroken to not be going, I was just excited and nervous to head out into the real world of youth ministry. But then one of the adult males found out he would need shoulder surgery a week or so before they left for the Gathering, and so he would be unable to go. A spot for a male chaperone opened up and they asked their new youth director if he'd like to go. I said Yes, of course. And it was pretty amazing. There were thousands and thousands of ELCA youth in one area. We had large group worships and all sorts of fun activities. I spent a lot of quality time in a van with these high schoolers that would now be mine.
In 2003, the Gathering was held in Atlanta. That year I happened to be on my Clinical Pastoral Education, which is a requirement for seminary and is a summer spent in a clinical ministry setting such as a hospital or a nursing home. It's a concentrated and intense experience and so to ask for a week or two off would be asking to miss a large chunk of the experience. So I didn't. But my friend, Pastor Mike, whose family was hosting me that summer went. I don't remember if he was taking a group or volunteering, but he was gone for those weeks while I trudged through the deep work that is CPE. I have to admit I was jealous. Very jealous.
So when 2006 rolled around and the Gathering was being held in San Antonio, I knew I HAD to go. But the only problem was, even though I was graduating from seminary in 2006, I most likely would not have a congregation by that point. And even if I did, it would be a situation similar to 2000, where they would have all their details in place and I could not expect emergency shoulder surgery to play a crucial role in me going. So I decided I needed to volunteer. I remembered that when I went to the St Louis Gathering that there were people in our hotel whose only role was to be hospitable. They were there to welcome us and to help us if we had any questions or concerns. They were called the Hotel Life team, and it seemed like something I could do. So I applied for this team, that was transitioning to the new title Community Life, and ended up being accepted as a volunteer.
I have to say that it was a pretty great way to spend two weeks of my summer. I ended up being in one of the hotels that was the farthest from the main hub of activity, and while that made me upset at first, I ended up enjoying it. I was part of a small team, just me and one other guy, and we had a great time. We schmoozed with the adults and youth in our hotel like we were getting paid for it. We patroled the hallways like the very safety of the hotel depended on it. We were there in the morning until the last groups got on the shuttle bus and headed to the convention center, and we were there towards the end of the night to wish them all sweet dreams. We hung out at the hotel closest to the convention center and spent a lot of time staffing their Community Life events. My favorite job was supervising dances. Being a church event we strongly discouraged the bumping and the grinding. So several of our female volunteers would stand up on the stage and observe the crowd. When they would see a young couple getting a little too friendly they'd point or nod, and my teammate or I would dance and boogie our way through the crowd to the overly amorous couple and remind them that there needed to be a bit more space in between them. Since our hotel was one of the distant properties, and there were no actual Community Life events held there, we were able to spend most of the day and evening at the convention center and the interaction center. We'd take the last bus in and wander around, check things out, visit the Community Life office and schmooze with the planning team, enjoy snow cones and check out the River Walk, and then go see all of the speakers and musicians and worship services. It was a great time, and an amazing two weeks.
So then the 2009 Youth Gathering started to get closer. I did mention to my Senior Pastor that I would like to volunteer for the Community Life team again, but he thought it would be better if I were to be in charge of our group. Since I wasn't in charge in 2000, I could see the value of experiencing the Gathering in a different way, and so I willingly, but reluctantly, decided not to volunteer again this year. And, I have to admit, this has been a completely different experience. All the fundraising and details and paperwork and phone calls and e-mails and checking and double checking and triple checking, the informational meetings... all these things that go into an ELCA Youth Gathering that I have never been a part of before. And I readily admit that I have not done it the way it probably should be done. I am sure that many people are far more organized and detail oriented than I am and that they have everything figured out to the minutest detail. But I know that we are registered for the event, and I know that we will have hotel rooms when we arrive, and I know that we have a bus to ride on to get there. So I am sure that things will work out.
To quote the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."