NEWS FEATURE: Lutheran Youth Gather in St. Louis to Dance `At the Crossroads’

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

ST. LOUIS _ Meghan Malaney, 20, attended the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Youth Gathering three years ago in New Orleans. The larger-than-life event, which happens only every three years, made such an impression on Malaney that she made it a point to get involved and volunteer at Youth Gathering 2000 in St. Louis.

“It helped me become more comfortable with my faith and get closer to God,” Malaney said. “And I wasn’t just doing it because my parents thought I had to.”

About 40,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 17 are arriving in St. Louis in waves to attend two back-to-back youth gatherings that began Wednesday (June 28). The theme is “Dancing at the Crossroads,” and the goal is to keep young people interested in church and worship or to spark that interest.

“We hope it becomes a life-changing or life-defining moment for them,” said John Brooks, director of ELCA News and Information.

About 22,000 are attending the first week’s session, which ends Sunday (July 2). About 18,000 are expected the second week from July 5 to 9. Three years ago in New Orleans more than 35,000 registered and the ELCA had to turn some away.

Determined not to send anyone away this year the ELCA scheduled two gatherings. Program schedules are the same, down to the keynote speaker, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is talking at each event about forgiveness and reconciliation.

Youth meetings have deep roots in Lutheranism. Some of the church bodies that joined to form the ELCA can trace youth meetings back to 1895. But it was in the 1980s and ’90s that youth conferences grew in popularity and began to take on a life of their own. This gathering took years to plan, will cost millions of dollars to produce, and requires more than 4,000 volunteers. “The bigness impresses them,” said Brooks.

“Our mission statement is to make and nurture disciples for Jesus Christ,” said Bill Kees, director for the 2000 event.

Organizers hope young people gain a sense of spiritual identity through the Mass Gatherings and House Parties to be held in the Trans World Dome. This year more than 20 musical groups will perform each week throughout the day.

“We feel strongly that young people are inspired more by music than they are by talking heads,” Kees said. “We want them to have music that’s rich in texture and lyrics.” Popular favorites like Kirk Franklin and the Nu Nation are among those making appearances.

“At home, everyone’s in their separate sections and they don’t see beyond that,” Malaney said. “This brings everyone together. You realize it’s not just your little church.”

During the day thousands of the young people will hit the streets of St. Louis. They’ll help build four Habitat for Humanity homes in East St. Louis, clean up downtown neighborhoods and parks, visit child-care and senior centers, and distribute more than 25 tons of collected food to 22 food pantries.

“We figure they’ll contribute 35,000 to 40,000 volunteer hours to the city before they leave,” said Kees.

“There’s so much going on,” said 16-year-old Kristen Hogan of Wichita, Kan. “Right now I’m around 22,000 people my age and everyone has a good attitude.”

Young people representing nearly all of the 50 states and 3,000 of the ELCA’s 11,000 congregations have registered. That crowd also includes 46 students from more than 20 countries like Argentina, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Palestine and Zimbabwe.

As the young people head to their service jobs or take some time out to see the sights in St. Louis, they will be easily identifiable as Lutheran youth because each one will carry a colorful handmade Guatemalan backpack.

It took workers five months to create the 40,000 packs. More than 150 volunteers stuffed them with information for the students. Youth leader Charlie Erickson, 21, of Minneapolis resembled a brightly colored pack mule as he hauled more than 20 of the packs across the convention center to his youth group.

“We wanted to give them a special gift and show them that there are people in other parts of the world who are Christians who are concerned about young people,” Brooks said.

Planning is already under way for the next ELCA Youth Gathering scheduled for 2003 in Atlanta.


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