In Lay Terms

Random Ramblings From a Church Nerd

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Gayest Youth Gathering Ever

I probably will re-visit the sorted affairs of "The Disciples" at a later post. Basically, I want all of your seminary (and parish) stories. They can be real or made-up. I can turn these into plotlines for my exciting new drama.

While you think of those crazy stories, I wanted to share an essay I wrote earlier this summer. This is more of documentation than essay, but you get the drift. I wrote this summer about my experiences at the National Youth Gathering in San Antonio. I decided that something should be shared. So I wrote this following piece. Enjoy.

The Gayest Youth Gathering Ever:
Personal Reflections on Cruzando

Every three years, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America holds a youth gathering for senior high youth. The Gathering has become immensely popular, with over 30,000 youth attending. At one point, the Gathering had to split into to distinct weeks to accommodate the increasing number of youth participants. The program is very well done. Lots of time, money, and energy is poured into making the Gathering an event that is theologically sound, relevant to youth, and spiritually engaging. In short, the Gathering is meant to get youth to be excited about being the church, particularly the ELCA.

I love going to the Gathering. I only went one time as a youth (Atlanta in 1994), but I have gone three times as an adult chaperone. This summer the Gathering was held in 2006 in San Antonio, Texas. We filled the Alamo Dome and the Convention Center with youth who are (mostly) excited to be there. The theme was “Cruzando: Journey with Jesus”. Cruzando means cross or crossing. It does NOT mean cruising, as was suggested to me at one point.

At the previous Gathering (2003 in Atlanta again), the Lutheran Youth Organization passed some resolutions regarding GLBT folks in the church. They supported the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy who are in committed relationships and the blessing of same-sex unions. They also voted overwhelmingly to designate themselves as Reconciling in Christ. These decisions by the young people caused quite a stir in the larger Lutheran world. Many people believed that ELCA staff was brainwashing the youth. The ELCA would not allow the LYO to keep the designation of RIC.

This is the backdrop of my story. Now for a little about me and my journey. I am the Program Director of The Naming Project, a faith-based youth group for GLBTQIA youth. I am also involved with the work of Lutherans Concerned/North America. I felt that it would be important for The Naming Project to share a workshop on the process of coming out in the church. We could help discuss how important it is to have support along the way. I went through the channels with the workshop team leader. Eventually, I was told that there was a moratorium on speaking about sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Lutherans Concerned, for its part, also attempted to have a presence at the Gathering. They tried to get a space in the interaction center, with the same result.

Our only break came, when I was invited to give a workshop at the LYO Business Convention. This is a separate event, held about the same time as the gathering. It was the Business Convention that passed the resolutions about sexuality and RIC in the last triennium. I believed that I would be co-presenting with my colleague and friend, J. However, we were informed that J would not be invited to attend, due to his lack of standing within the ELCA. You see, J is a pastor in a same-sex relationship. His ordination was outside the oversight of the ELCA. So, I would be traveling and presenting alone. However, I was also chaperoning a group of kids from the Twin Cities Metro Area.

Even with the moratorium on all things gay, the gay subtext at the gathering was everywhere! In the morning sessions, when a speaker was entering the stage, the DJ would play "Somewhere over the Rainbow". Not the Judy Garland version. No, that would be too obvious. Instead, he played the version by the Hawaiian guy. One night, the evening was opened with a song and mass cast dance to the song "Travelin'Through" featured in the film Transamerica. "The Rainbow Connection" was played as we left one evening session. Again, not the Kermit the Frog version, but some hard rock version. In short, the background music was speaking to me personally.

But probably the gayest part of the gathering was when someone re-wrote the words to "YMCA". Instead, we had some Lutheran musicians (and for the second week, Bishop Mark Hanson) dancing on the stage to "It's good to be in the E-L-C-A!" There were even dancing letters, spelling out ELCA. I mean, come on!

Many of the speakers addressed social justice themes across the spectrum. One speaker, Dr. Kristin Gebbie, was invited to speak to us about the situation of AIDS in Africa. Instead, she brought AIDS much closer to home for many of our kids. I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Gebbie. I thanked God that she was present. Her talk was the closest that frank conversations about sexuality made it into the main stage. She, in turn, was thankful that groups like Lutherans Concerned and The Naming Project were still present, even in an "underground" capacity.

Lutherans Concerned and The Naming Project need to have a presence at the National Youth Gathering. I was convinced of this early on during the gathering. J called me to let me know that one of his former classmates knew a kid at the gathering who was feeling very isolated and alone. He was convinced that no one in the ELCA understood what it was like for his to be a gay youth in the midst of this church event. I was already walking around with brochures about The Naming Project in my back pocket, but when I learned there was a kid who needed support, I did my best to find him. How do you find a random gay kid from Nebraska at a Lutheran youth event? You spend a lot of time on the phone. I did everything I could short of stalking him. He was given my phone number and encouraged to call me. He never did. The prospect of meeting a stranger to talk about his feelings was probably too overwhelming for him. I feel like I missed out on a great ministry opportunity. If we could have had an official presence, then our meeting with him (and probably dozens of other GLBTQIA kids) could have focused on their own journey.

I was able to share this thought when I presented my workshop for the LYO convention. My workshop title was "What It Means to Be Welcoming of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities". I recognized the great work that LYO has done. I also pointed out all the gay subtext at the gathering. Subtext is a great first step, but sometimes it helps to make things a little more obvious. Instead of dropping hints that people are welcome, perhaps our congregations and the ELCA need to define what it can do to help young people who are figuring out how to come out in the church.

My experience at the ELCA National Youth Gathering was not a complete loss, nor was it a total victory. I left challenged and energized for the next steps. I learned a lot from the kids I worked with. I would like organizations like Lutherans Concerned and The Naming Project present to provide pastoral care to youth who have questions about sexuality and gender identity, who are thinking about coming out, or who are supporting a friend or family member who is out. This needs to be carefully planned and executed. We cannot take our work with youth lightly. However, the church will be that much richer if we can help kids understand and thank God for who they are.


Blogger mark said...

It's funny, because I noticed those things at the gathering, but I didn't notice them until you mentioned it.

I also think it was a shame that these organizations weren't allowed to have a formal presence at the Gathering. I don't know if the administration was thinking that, by not mentioning homosexuality, that it wouldn't be an issue? Unfortunately, I think it just left kids (like the youth you mention) thinking that they are out of place, or don't belong. Even with all of those subliminal messages. Which, I think, is shameful.

1:33 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home