It 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.