Detroit 2015: Everyone Please Take a Breath

detroit_city_600x4001It was with some dismay and a bit of disappointment that I’ve been reading the ongoing comments and conversation in blogs and on Facebook about the City of Detroit as the site of the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering.  I know that the news about the legal bankruptcy of the City of Detroit is very big news, and the implications for the city and those who live in it are immense.  But to be honest, at this point in the game, it’s really not helpful, or even appropriate for those of us who are invested in the ELCA Youth Gathering to begin the ‘sky is falling’ mantras.

I have been very involved in the Gathering since I took my first congregational group to the event in San Antonio in 1988.  I have served on several different leadership teams over the years, and in 2012 was blessed to be the co-team leader for the Practice Discipleship day.  I will not be a team leader in 2015, but will likely be involved in some way.  I think I can take advantage of my experience with the Gathering to make some observations that may be helpful.  (But let me be clear – I’m not speaking on behalf of the Gathering, or the ELCA Churchwide offices.  These are just my thoughts):

  • First, the Gathering is a big deal for congregations, and we all know how much is invested in time, energy and money to get there.  Everyone involved wants it to be a fantastic, transformational experience for young people, and for the Gospel to be proclaimed and experienced boldly.
  • Adult leaders are right to be concerned about the Gathering’s safety and the quality of experience.  If you’re not concerned, something is seriously wrong.  When I take a group of 20 on a retreat to a camp, I’m concerned for these things.  39,000 young people in a strange city should have all the adult leaders on pins and needles, all the time.  This is true for any city that we are in.  To be concerned is to be a good leader.
  • That being said, we all need to trust the Holy Spirit, the process, the Gathering staff and the Safety and Security Team.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the people who work on this end of the Gathering take everything into consideration.  Seriously.  Everything.  There is a protocol for any possibility you can imagine.  When I was a team leader, I had a chance to look through the mammoth 3 ring Emergency Preparedness binders.  They have contingency plans for things I couldn’t even have imagined.  And they work in very close partnership with the local police, city officials and even national authorities.  And they are very well staffed, and they do as good a job as I’ve ever seen in training their team.  They are totally, 100% committed to the safety of our young people.Will Detroit present any special challenges?  Probably.  But so did New Orleans (twice.)  So did San Antonio in ’06.  In fact, in every city where I’ve brought young people to the Gathering, there have been issues and challenges.  But with the level of planning and preparation that is in place, and with strong congregational leaders watching out for our kids, and with some common sense, our Gatherings will continue to be safe.  Trust the Holy Spirit.  Trust the process.  Trust the Gathering Staff.  Trust the Safety and Security Team.
  • Perhaps most troubling to me are the conversations about whether we should or should not be going to Detroit because…well…it’s Detroit.  Questions like “Can it even be saved?” or “Shouldn’t we focus on someplace else  that has a better reputation?” have surfaced.  I was not a part of the conversations about choosing Detroit as a Gathering city.  But here’s what I firmly believe:  God is calling the ELCA to go to Detroit precisely because it is Detroit.  I was there this past fall as a part of a group working on theme discernment for the Gathering, and got to spend quite a bit of time in and around the city.  When I went there I had expected to see a city that had bottomed out…that was in desperate need.  There is definitely need in Detroit.  But I saw a city that has begun to rebound.  I saw a city that is in the middle of re-creating itself in ways I could never imagine.  I saw community gardens and playgrounds in lots where houses used to be.  I saw creative neighborhood communities drawing together.  I saw an “urban farm.”  I saw a downtown where employment is on the increase.  I saw a new baseball park…football field…and huge new expansion of convention facilities.  I saw a city growing in vibrancy and diversity where God is already doing amazing things.  This is the side of Detroit that we don’t see in the news.And I saw a unique opportunity for ELCA young people.We believe that Jesus steps into the mess and the crap of our lives, and lifts the cross with which we are all burdened.  Jesus meets us, calls us “friend,” looks us in the eye and does this with grace and with love.  I believe that God is calling us to step in to Detroit; the beauty and the mess, to meet the people there, to call them friend, and to help them to lift the cross with which they have been burdened.My prayer is that we can do it with grace and with love.

This Gathering will not be easy. And it is going to feel different from Gatherings of the past.  There will be new and different challenges.  I believe most of them, to be honest, will be logistical in nature.  But we can deal with that.  We’re good at dealing with that.  Blessed by the Holy Spirit, we’ve always made it work in the past, and we will again.  The team leaders for this event are amazing, gifted people of God who are  creative thinkers and problem solvers.

This blog post is not meant to chastise those who are concerned…nor to shame them.  Every congregation will have to make its own decision about participating.  But please, before you react, pause.  Think big picture.  Trust the process and the leadership.  Trust the Holy Spirit.  Take a breath.   As for my congregation?  We’ll be there. I am excited to be a part of a denomination that will be there.  Together we’re going to step in and become a part of God’s mission in Detroit.

Trusting in Christ,
Todd Buegler
Pastor – Lord of Life Lutheran Church; Maple Grove, Mn
Executive Director – ELCA Youth Ministry Network

  1. Amen! I 100% agree. If it were a thriving city we would be limited on our ability to make a change. Here we will enter a city where we can leave God’s finger prints EVERYWHERE!

    Sharon Epp
    Christian Ed and Youth Director
    Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church
    Dayton, Ohio


  2. I am neither in the ELCA nor involved in any way in this gathering. This is the first I have heard that you guys are coming to Detroit.

    BUT I AM a youth director and I have taken kids- lots of them- to lots of National Youth gatherings over the years. And by the way, I live in metro Detroit.

    And let me be one of the first to say WELCOME!!!!!! WE NEED YOU!!!!! We need your excitement! We need your energy! We need your youthful fun that comes whenever a huge pile of kids converge on a big city! We need your service! Practically, we need your cash. Selfishly, we NEED the POSITIVE PRESS that you will bring.

    As a youth director, I bring my kids into the city often. Is it dangerous? Just like any other city, it can be. But despite what you might hear from the press, there are not drug deals on every corner, drive-bys at every light. You need to be careful and you need to be in groups- just like you would in every other city. But for the record, I have never felt unsafe in the city, and none of the groups I take or that go from our church has ever had an incident. Ever.

    There is much to do- there is much more that needs to be done. You can either see it as a broken down city that is famous for riots, jailed mayors, and most recently, being broke. Or you can see it as the most amazing opportunities- great people! Unique music! Great art! And most of all, our great God who loves His people and wants to use you all to bless this city.


  3. Amen! And thanks, Todd, for saying so! I have no idea what I’ll be doing in three years, or where I’ll be doing it, but this post called me to a commitment that I will be at that Gathering in Detroit. Not sure in what capacity (and those with a suggestion are welcome to be in touch!, but I am putting this event on my calendar, and planning to be there. Because I hear the Spirit’s call in this. Truly. Join me?
    Mary Kaye Ashley
    interim associate pastor, Christus Victor Lutheran
    Apple Valley, MN

    P.S. I’ve been at a national gathering when my youth group had a minor crisis – and I was amazed how cared for, and planned for we were!


  4. Phil Ruge-Jones July 26, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Preach it!


  5. Thanks Todd! I have never lived in Detroit, but as a life-long Michigander I have been there often, and I claim Detroit as “our city!” I know many who live in and around the great city, and I know the pride many of us carry for Detroit. It is a pride that is born in the spirit of hard work, loyalty, determination, and toughness. It is a pride that embodies the spirit of resurrection. Yes, we may get knocked down, but we never stay down! The most emotional moment I had coming out of our last Gathering in N.O. was the presentation at the end, when the choir came out singing and the video of Detroit was playing on the screen. I was overcome with emotion and pride, knowing that our wonderful gathering was committed to join our spirit of life to the spirit of Detroit. That spirit is evident throughout our great state, and I am always proud to claim Detroit as the heartbeat of that spirit. Detroit is in a state of resurrection, and is on the way back, whether The Gathering comes or not. But what a great opportunity it is for all of us to join in the communion of Saints, to work for the common good, and to see life rise out of what once was considered dead! Isn’t that what we did in N.O.? And isn’t that what we are as Christians? I pray that “The Gathering” would do a great work in Detroit in 2015. I also pray that the sprit of Detroit, and the new life that is already growing there, would open all of our eyes, stretch us, put to death our pre-conceived biases, and awaken in us the spirit of resurrection that Christ has born in all of us!
    I can’t wait!
    See ya in the “D” 2015!!


  6. Kurt Fangmeier July 27, 2013 at 9:04 am

    As an ELCA pastor who served several congregations in the SE MI / Metro Detroit Synod, I had many opportunities to go to Detroit for church functions (synodical meetings, youth service, worship events, hospital visits) and for pleasure (pro-sport events, plays, museums, restaurants). Out of those experiences I have a few more thoughts I would add to Todd’s reflections.
    1) Some people seem to be afraid of going to Detroit. The only fear I have ever felt while in the city was from the fear that I brought with me, not because of the actions of Detroit residents. It was my own prejudices and biases that caused me grief.
    2) Some people think that Detroit is not worthy. They are right. Detroit is not worthy, but neither is any other city we might choose for a National Gathering, but that’s because we choose according to human ways. By the same token, no youth or adult is worthy of going to the National Gathering either, especially when one brings fear and prejudice with one’s self. Detroit already has enough problems. We don’t need to be adding to it. And yet, Detroit and ELCA youth and adults have been called in the Gospel, and by God’s grace and mercy they have been declared worthy, not by their own righteousness, but God’s word in Christ Jesus.
    3) Some people think that Detroit is not safe. Well of course it’s not! When we are called in the Gospel to take up our crosses and to follow Jesus, life is not safe. Life was not safe in NOLA either but we went there any way, twice. People’s lives were changed; youths and adults found a deeper bond and relationship with Jesus that has forever altered (simplified and complicated) their lives in profound ways. People died to themselves and rose to new life in Christ each day.
    The Gospel calls us to go to places and meet people we would not choose for ourselves, but then again, we are not in control. God, I firmly believe, is sending us to Detroit. Detroit needs what we have to offer. I also firmly believe that we need even more what Detroit has to offer us: a place where God confronts our fears and prejudices, our failures and self-righteousness, but then gives us grace and forgiveness, death and new life. We will meet Jesus, crucified and resurrected, in Detroit, and we will be Jesus’ hands and feet, in Detroit.


  7. I served as a Pastor in the Detriot area for 9.5 years. When we moved there some of our midwest family members expressed concern then about whether we would be safe. So this is not new. I spent 6 years as Camping Director for Tecumseh Woods, Pleasant Hill and Stoney Lake Church camps We served some wonderful people from the city and we belonged to an urban congregation, Genesis Lutheran. We could not have felt more welcome. I agree that God has called the ELCA Youth to be a witness and encourager to the citizens of Detroit.


    1. I also served as Hotel Pastor or staff member at 6 national youth gatherings. We heard some of these same concerns for safety when we went to New Orleans and Atlanta. I found that the problem of safety was not from any local residents, but when our youth engaged in risky behavior like climbing up the12-15 foot wall surrounding the pool and jumping into the pool; or taking the window out, or climbing from balcony to a lower balcony. Leadership always dealt well with these situations and will do so again.


  8. I agree. We are people who believe in life after death… We are Resurrection people so Detroit needs what we have and we need to bring what we have to Detroit!


  9. Yvonne Steindal July 27, 2013 at 11:47 am

    I too have been so disturbed by the fear based comments regarding the Gathering in Detroit. I cannot think of a safer event to take youth to then the ELCA Youth Gathering. The Gathering staff is so intense about planning for any scenario. They are far better at it then we are individually when we do our own youth trips. Looking forward to it!


    1. Yvonne,
      You speak truth 🙂 May we all plan & care as well as the Gathering does together!


  10. Reblogged this on Living an Ecumenical Life and commented:
    This guy gets it!


  11. Reblogged this–I’ve heard the same concerns, and you’ve got the best answers so far!


  12. Gretchen Archinal July 27, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Thank you so much!


  13. AWESOMENESS!!! Thank you for your words! I can not wait for NYG in Detroit 2015, hopefully with my own youth group!!! Peace and Blessings! Let’s Rock Detroit!

    Vicar (yay for starting Internship!) Kwame
    Seminarian, LSTC


  14. The problems that Detroit is facing because of bankruptcy and the problems that a local church will face with regard to the safety of their kids in Detroit are not that closely related. I know St. Louis well, and while it may not have the national reputation that Detroit has earned, the risks were just as high there as they will be in Detroit. I made sure that our group followed protocols designed to keep them safe and we had no problems. The same thing was true of New Orleans and Atlanta. Both opportunities and risks abound in every city. Detroit will be no different in that regard than any of the other places that the Gathering has been held. Trusting in the ELCA staff, I know it will be every bit as good as many before it. And trusting in what I know of Detroit, it will also be no worse, nor less safe unless leader fail to prepare and supervise the youth they bring.


  15. Suzanne Hansen July 29, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I agree these thoughts on the Youth Gathering being held in Detroit! If we can go to New Orleans twice to help that community, then we can go to Detroit and help out that City! Yes we need to think about the safety part but I fully believe that Detroit needs the ELCA youth and adults to come and help with Detroit’s mission.


  16. Personally, I thank the ELCA for selecting Detroit and having faith that we need to be there. The city has had a terrible reputation for way too many years (decades). There is a heartbeat, it is there – saw a news item just the other day, one of hope from the young business owners. I have always thought it has such great potential – a small international mecca! I was born in Detroit, grew up and lived in the suburbs for many years. I do hope my daughter has the opportunity to go as a youth advisor.


  17. Reblogged this on lingering in love and commented:
    Amen, Todd.
    I’ve never believed that my vocational call to youth ministry or my personal call to mission will always lead me to safe, comfortable places. I believed we are called to love like Jesus. To clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort those in despair and live out our baptismal promises. And I believe that we are called to Detroit. And to Juarez. And to Chicago, and Minneapolis, and New York, and Atlanta, and San Antonio, and New Orleans.
    I’m excited to see what we’re called to in our mission of accompaniment in Detroit.
    Stay safe, and be good to other humans.


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