The 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering concluded July 1 after 31,242 Lutheran youth and their adult leaders came together for five days in Houston, Texas. The triennial Gathering brings together teens of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) from across the nation. We gathered for faith formation, exuberant worship, interactive learning, thoughtful Bible study, meaningful service projects throughout the city, and fun-filled fellowship.

In the days prior to the main Gathering, there were also smaller gatherings for multicultural youth (MYLE) and differently-abled youth (tAble).

We had youth & adults attend both the MYLE and the Gathering.

Our youth and adult leaders will be leading worship this Sunday! Hear all about how this trip changed everything for them in their walk with Jesus!
The June 27 opening night Mass Gathering of the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering was marked by spirited testimonies of God’s call, fitting with the day’s theme: “God’s call changes everything.” For the 31,242 youth from around the country in attendance, the opening Mass Gathering brought a new sense of belonging in Christ. 

Before the doors to NRG stadium opened, the Gathering participants and adult leaders were anticipating what the night—and the week—had in store.  
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton set the tone for the evening, calling youth to become disciples who reflect a “God of grace and love, who welcomes everyone.” 

Tuhina Rasche, an ELCA pastor and writer, told youth her call began with a simple invitation to dinner hosted by her college’s Lutheran campus ministry. Rasche started attending their worship services, and one day, while singing a hymn, she was struck by an encounter with God.  

“God sent me messenger after messenger after messenger, setting fires all around me and I finally realized, oh hey, there’s a fire,” she said. That fire was the Holy Spirit acting in her life. “If a former Hindu can be a Lutheran pastor then, yeah, God’s call changes everything,” Rasche said. 

The Gathering’s House Band introduced the theme song for the week, “This changes everything,” grounded in Ephesians 2:8.

Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., closed out the Mass Gathering, encouraging youth to consider how their vocations intersect with our calling as Christians to pursue compassion, justice and reconciliation. 

Stevenson encouraged Lutherans to speak out and name injustice: “When we see injustice, it is necessary that people of faith speak their truth,” he said. “We’re gonna have to say things when it would be easier to be quiet.” 

He spoke of tragic injustice facing young children who get tried as adults and caught up in the prison system, and he implored students to speak out for justice. “I think God is calling us to love and wrap our arms around the kids who are struggling, the kids who are in jail,” he said.  
"God's Love Changes Everything" was the theme for Day 2 of the Gathering. It was our Synod Day. We gathered with over 800 youth from JUST the Southern Ohio Synod in a grand ballroom of our hotel. It was AMAZING to see that many youth from just our Synod!

We had many from our group in leadership positions for Synod Day. Our own Matt Pittman trained youth on the usher and other special duties. Morgan Walker, a former youth ministry student of Pastor Aaron's from Capital University who served as an Advent chaperone, served as the stage manager. Pastor Aaron served as the Synod Photographer. Synod Day lasted from noon - 3pm, after some earlier morning training.
After some short rest, we headed back to NRG Stadium for the second Mass Gathering. Caroline Meeker opened the Mass Gathering by sharing her battle with anorexia, a disease for which she was hospitalized at the age of nine. 

“I couldn’t stop the voice in my head telling me not to eat,” she said. “I was literally disappearing, physically and mentally.” In the hospital, receiving nutrition from a feeding tube, Meeker felt like she’d lost everything.  

As she recovered, she began noticing God. “God was there in my family, church and friends. God was everywhere,” Meeker told youth. The experience helped her see God doesn’t give us hardships, but “God promises to be there.”  

Other highlights included musical performances from Ryan Brown, Rachel Kurtz and Guardian Drum and Bugle Corps as well as some special, traditional Mexican dancing!

Deacon Erin Power then took the stage and spoke about the importance of finding a church home and how we are called to express and embody such a home for a world in need. Power hoped that participants would go home with the realization that “Our call as the church is to embody radical hospitality and we need to proclaim this message.”

Youth were also moved by Reverend Aaron Fuller’s heartfelt speech about his ministry as a wrestling coach and Navy chaplain. Fuller only became a pastor recently, after working as a Naval Officer and struggling with his own demons related to his identity.

“I used to keep people at a distance,” he told youth. “What changed? In my own life, my own dark moments, people walked alongside me. The thing I was going through never scared them.” Today, as a chaplain, Fuller accompanies sailors and wrestlers as they wrestle with life’s ups and downs. 

“The world needs us to be courageous and walk alongside others in [dark] moments,” he said. “What they don’t need us to do is fix their problems and save their world. What they do need is love.” Fuller’s hope was that those attending the Mass Gathering would have the “courage to see suffering in the world, not turn away and enter into it.”
Houstonite and storyteller Marlon Hall closed out the evening by blessing ELCA youth with a message of love—and a call to action.  

“You were born to make an indelible mark on the world that no one can erase,” he said. “If you don’t make that mark that mark won’t be made. You make this mark by the love of God.” 

Hall spoke about he and his spouse’s hardships during their eight-year struggle to conceive. Then he welcomed his daughter, Phoenix to the stage. He said his daughter is “now and forever a physical manifestation to me that God’s love isn’t earned, it’s welcomed.” 

Hall then shared a story about an encounter with Joe, a man who transformed Hall’s vision of love. Joe took Hall’s phone from a convenience store, then returned it to Hall in the parking lot as though it was a gift. “Joe was trying to give me a blessing that I already had,” he said. “So is true with the love of God.” 

It was a great day! See more from our youth's perspective with the video below!
“God’s grace changes everything” set the tone for Day 3 of the ELCA Youth Gathering. This was our Service Learning Day. On this day, along with 10,000 other Gathering participants, went to sites around Houston to serve and learn from those we were serving.

Our group went to Trinity United Methodist Church, the oldest predominantly African American Methodist church in Houston. We painted and cleaned up the parking lot along with other youth groups, including Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Loveland, Ohio.
Grace was the primary focus of Mass Gathering.

Elizabeth Peter opened the evening by examining the Biblical story of the Ethiopian Eunuch ( read Acts 8:26-40), who was stigmatized and stereotyped. “Maybe you’ve been stereotyped, too,” she said, later adding: “There are times where I feel like I’m not always included. I don’t always feel welcomed in the church. Because of my skin, my gender, my youth, my hair, the way I talk and dress.”

She asked the over 30,000 participants in NRG Stadium if they knew how they judged and excluded others in the church and in the world. Peter reminded everyone they are a vehicle for God’s grace, and grace can show up not just in unexpected places, but also unexpected people. She wanted everyone present to know and remember after tonight, “You are indeed in the limitlessness of God’s grace.”

God’s limitless grace was reflected again and again as others took the stage to share their stories, including Michaela Shelley, who has been fighting mitochondria disease since she was a teenager. For a long time, she was angry at God and at everyone.

Then she started connecting with other teenagers with mitochondria disease, eventually creating an online support group for teens like her that has now connected 500 people from 20 countries. “No matter how many times you curse God, he still loves you no matter what,” Shelley said. “God’s grace is not only about forgiveness but about the way you can become the person you are meant to become.”

From her powerful testimony on God’s grace, Michaela Shelley wanted people to remember that even in the midst of her honest words on life and death, that children living in similar situations could still be a normal kid.

Next, singer Tauren Wells brought the crowd to their feet with upbeat, thoughtful songs expressing God’s deep love for us. “It’s hard truth and ridiculous grace to be known fully known and loved by you,” he sang. “I’m fully known and loved by you.”

Will Starkweather, an ELCA pastor, shared his experience with cutting during his teenage and young adult years. In college, when he revealed his secret to his pastor, that pastor told Starkweather he was going to hell. Starkweather left the church, dropped out of school and fell into a deep depression—and he cut.

Eventually he began to rebuild his life. He found a new church, then divulged his secret to the pastor. “Pastor Carla listened and then she also said four words: There’s grace for that,” Starkweather said. “Y’all, those words changed my life.”

He learned cutting is a coping mechanism for stress and began to start sharing his story with others so they’d know they were not alone. Starkweather went on to become an ELCA pastor. Acknowledging the hurt and pain that resides in each of us, Starkweather told all who were gathered, “We are all recovering from something—and there is grace for that.”

After concluding a powerful testimony to a standing ovation, Starkweather greeted friends behind the stage. From his talk, he wanted people to take home with them that there is “no such thing as ‘too broken.’ Our broken places are where God brings out beauty.”

Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA pastor and best-selling author, gave the final talk of the evening. She told youth that when she was a teen, she struggled with an autoimmune disease that made her eyes bulge out. “My daily reality at your age was name calling and social isolation,” she said. “If I was a kid at the Gathering (today), I would be the kid who refused to stand up when everyone else stands up.”

Bolz-Weber said it was difficult to write in her book about the pain and alienation of her youth, which led her to substance abuse. She proclaimed to youth: “If your life totally sucks right now, if you struggle with having friends or feeling like and outsider, just know that your current reality is not your ultimate reality.

“There’s a word for when our tears turn to joy. There’s a word for when our pain is a home for those who also hurt,” Bolz-Weber said. “And that, my Lutheran friends, is grace.” She said she wishes someone had told her 15-year-old self what grace was. That’s why Bolz-Weber writes and preaches so honestly about her life experiences, because “the jagged edges of our humanity are what connect us to God and to each other.”

God isn’t waiting for you to be thinner, smarter or more spiritual, she preached. “You are magnificently imperfect. The self God loves is your actual self, not your ideal self. And there’s a word for this: grace.”

The implications of God’s radical grace mean that God’s grace is also for our enemies, she said. The uncomfortable truth is this: “salvation of my enemy is also wrapped up in my own salvation,” Bolz-Weber said.

In closing out her speech, Bolz-Weber called on all who were gathered to renounce the devil in his many manifestations—in our racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism and other forms of hatefulness.

She asked: “Do you renounce the lies that tell you grace isn’t real, that there’s anything grace can’t redeem?”

The crowd responded, “I renounce them.”

“Well, me too,” she said. “Amen.”
Did you Know?
Day 4's focus was on how God's Hope Changes everything. On this day we went to something called the Interactive Learning Center, held at NRG.

Think of the Interactive Learning Center as a kind of “Holy Playground” of sorts, as it invited Gathering participants to encounter God through a variety of learning styles and sensory experiences.

All 30,000 participants have a dedicated day in the three day program rotation to experience the extensive offerings inside the over 700,000 square feet Interactive Learning space. From sports to creative expressions, service projects to quiet meditation, Interactive Learning had something for everyone.
The Mass Gathering for this day was an expression of how God’s hope changes everything. The speakers covered some intense topics.

Stephen Bouman, executive director for ELCA Domestic Mission, opened up the final evening of the Gathering with a heartfelt speech on current issues facing the US and this church, including gun violence in our schools, racism, and the ongoing demonization of refugees and immigrants. Bouman shared how he has seen signs of hope in the work of his church, the ELCA, in its advocacy work, fighting hunger in the US and beyond, building peace globally, and accompanying migrant families and children through its AMMPARO initiative.

Youth were moved when Jamie Bruesehoff and her 11-year-old daughter, Rebekah, shared their story. Rebekah is transgender. “When I was younger, I was worried and confused. Why did I have to go through all of this?” Rebekah shared. “I’ve come to learn that God does not make mistakes. I was created in the image of God to be me.” 

Since claiming her gender identity, Rebekah has went on to speak to lawmakers and others, advocating on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly those who are transgender. “Transgender kids are just like other kids,” she said. “We need to be loved and supported.” 

As she wrapped up her speech, Rebekah called on youth to make a difference in their own communities and congregations and show others hope. “I hope for a church and world where people are not only welcomed but they are celebrated,” Rebekah said. “Go out. Start something. Help somebody struggling in their community. Cheer them on. Throw them a party...That’s what I want my church to do.” 

Maria Rose Belding, executive director of MEANS Database, spoke about her journey to create a national nonprofit database connecting people and organizations with extra food to donate it to nearby hunger nonprofits. She opened up to youth about her anxiety and depression in high school while she was working to create MEANS.  

Joe Davis, a poet, musician and recent ELCA seminary graduate, inspired youth with a message of hope amid adversity. “I am a Black man and I am speaking in front of one of the whitest church denominations. My very body is the hope of my ancestors, my very presence is a prayer,” he said. “In a world that speaks death to me … my existence is resistance. I am here for a purpose and a reason.” 

Davis told you they were here for a purpose and reason, and he encouraged them be bold in their faith. “You may have been told to shut up and sit down but I wanna tell you to stand up and speak out,” he said. “We’re no longer in a church building but we are building church.” 

After his talk, Joe Davis said he wanted Gathering participants to remember to “have more reasons to hope than despair. We have to practice hope like a discipline, and it is best practiced in community.”  
Some of our youth with Joe Davis
Ten Avenue North closed out the evening with a spirited performance of songs that touched on God’s love, grace, and hope. Youth were energized and inspired, and many said the concert was their favorite moment of the evening.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton expressed that she wanted participants to find a way to not just take the hope expressed at Mass Gathering from this one night. Behind the stage, she said she hoped participants would take the entirety of the Gathering experience home with them with them when they depart Houston. Her hope was for participants to maintain the sense of community as they return to their homes across the ELCA.  
The last day. 31,242 Lutherans. One Stadium. One amazing Holy Communion worship service that was focused on singing, talking, and celebrating the fact that Jesus Changes Everything!

Our group was chosen to help serve Holy Communion to the Mass Gathering. There were stations set up all over the stadium to receive Holy Communion. Each station was easily identifiable by a white umbrella. When someone came forward, they received bread, wine or grape juice, and a blessing, "Child of God, be brave you are saved by grace through faith."
After that our group the Gathering was officially over and our group was free to get some rest and have some fun! They did go to NASA to visit the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center. When asked about it, all that was said was, "It was out of this world."
Dominic and Olivia Bernon, along with Pastor Aaron attended the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, or MYLE, a four day pre-event to the Gathering. It took place at the University of Houston and it's goal was to empower young people of color and those whose primary language is other than English to claim their story as a part of God's story.

MYLE’s core values include:
  • Culture is explored. Participants experienced an inclusive community that seeks to build understanding and appreciation of the various cultures and ethnicities that are a part of this church.
  • Leaders are formed. Youth and adults learned about the issues in their communities and how to effect change.
  • Identity is claimed. Participants were encouraged to uncover their story and live out their God-given calling in the world.
  • Faith is deepened. Youth and adults explored the intersection of faith and life and how our faith calls us to act justly in the world.
  • Friends are made. Participants connected with peers who are looking to build relationships and have a good time.

The theme for MYLE 2018 was “ONE” based in the scripture of Ephesians 2:14-19.

In God’s eternal plan and wisdom there is a way to remove these barriers. This new humanity would no longer be many, but ONE believer in Christ. In other words, this was God’s plan for the unity of many into ONE new people in Christ.

Each day of MYLE program pieces focused around a sub-theme:
  • One body, many parts (1Corinthians 12:14-26)
  • One mission, many gifts (1Corinthians 12: 4-11)
  • One household, many rooms (John 14:2)
  • ONE in CHRIST (Ephesians 2:14-19)

While there we dove into scripture, learned from teachers and elders, spread joy in fellowship, and worshipped the Lord who makes us ONE! We also served in the Houston community at NAM (Northwest Assistance Ministries). This ministry provides assistance to those in need in a certain segment of Houston, including shelter, help with energy bills, clothing, transportation, prescription medications, providing referrals food pantry, resale shop, Children’s Clinic, Family Violence Center, Meals on Wheels, and a Learning Center which offers various classes, including career and vocational training courses for individuals seeking further education for a better future.

We served there cleaning and preparing areas to be ready to use for their wide and essential ministries!

See Olivia, Dominic, and Pastor Aaron's take on their time at MYLE below.
First Part of MYLE
Second Part of MYLE
for all of your support: financial, prayerful, and through your encouragement!
It was a trip that...well... Changes Everything!

Thank you to our chaperones:
Matt Pittman, Christy Habermehl, Kaity Toon, Morgan Walker and Pastor Aaron Layne.

Thank you to the participants!

Thank you to the parents!

Please come THIS SUNDAY to hear from our youth and be served by our youth in worship at both services. Their testimony is powerful and authentic!