Youths help others in far away places
For a moment, in fact for a week, Blooming Prairie, Minnesota moved to Houston, Texas.
The heartbeat of Blooming Prairie was transfused into the city of Houston, Texas with 24 youths and five adult leaders descending on Houston for the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) Youth Gathering.
Twenty of the youths were from First Lutheran Church of Blooming Prairie and four youths were representing Red Oak Grove Lutheran Church, located seven miles south of BP. Four of the adult leaders were from First Lutheran and one was from Red Oak Grove.
The 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering started on June 27 and concluded July 1 after more than 31,000 Lutheran youths and their adult leaders came together for five days in Houston, Texas.
The Gathering, held every three years, brings together teens of the ELCA from across the nation.
Youths gathered for faith formation, exuberant worship, interactive learning, thoughtful Bible study, meaningful service projects throughout the city, and fun-filled fellowship.
In days prior to the main Gathering, there were smaller gatherings for multicultural youth (MYLE) and differently-abled youth (tAble).
"The experience made me think about how God helps everyone; he helps in so many different ways," said Blooming Prairie High School junior Karson Vigeland.
"It's amazing how so many people can come together and view the world the same," remarked BPHS junior Baylee Sorensen.
At the mass gatherings held every night at NRG Stadium, the youths sang, prayed and listened to a variety of speakers. These speakers told of their trials and triumphs," said the Rev. Heidi Heimgartner, who attended as clergy from First Lutheran.
The trip was Pastor Heidi's second to a Youth Gathering. She attended on in Dallas, Texas in 1991.
First Lutheran adult leader Chad Forystek attended a Youth Gathering in San Antonio, Texas in 1988. Jacob Ulland, an adult leader from Red Oak Grove, was part of a Youth Gathering in Atlanta, Ga., in 2003.
Nicki Bishop, one of the original instigators of the Youth Gathering for First Lutheran youths, said the highlight of the week was "seeing over 30,000 people from all over the United States gather and being there because of their faith."
The Gathering allowed youths to think about things differently, Bishop commented.
The speakers at the Gathering made a point to say everyone has a value in their life, Bishop said.
The speakers were evidence they had seen the light of God, said Vigeland. Sorensen said her favorite speaker was well-known author Pastor Nadia Balz-Weber of Denver. Her entire life was filled with struggles but she persisted and overcame them, said Pastor Heidi.
Worke said she loved the bishop's sermon and never was bored.
During sing-alongs, kids and leaders swayed together and shined lights from their cell phones.
"We were all there together worshiping God," said Mary. Watching students' reactions to the speakers was special, she added. "It was very clear about the need to live with God's grace," she said.
"Personally, I was moved and really saw God," said an emotional McKenna Hein. She said she saw others affected similarly.
A common thread was the bonding of the more than 30,000 youth, related Trent Swenson. "All these kids got together in the same spot to help different people reach the same goal, that being to help others," Swenson said.
In addition to going to the huge gatherings at night, the youths in Houston worked on service projects.
The Blooming Prairie contingency was assigned to help employees of the Kashmere Senior High School in Houston. That assignment was to help with a school garden. Since the kids arrived later than normal, their service project turned into helping the school move books from one location to another.
Swenson, Vigeland and Seth Peterson were on a team to move boxes. While at the school, the Blooming Prairie kids bonded with two female custodians.
When not working on an assigned service project, some of the BP youths came up with their own service project.
Swenson said he and some of his BP friends went to a mall, bought some sandwiches and came back to their hotel to dine.
"We had some sandwiches left over, so we took them with us on our way to the Metro and distributed them to some of the homeless on the streets," Swenson said.
During times of relaxation, the BP youths played card games like Phase 10, Taboo and dice. "We also played volleyball," Hein informed.
Vigeland was one of the travelers who had never flown before. "He was looking out the window the whole time," teased Pastor Heidi.
All of the youths were impressed with the city of Houston. "It is the biggest city I have been in," confessed Swenson.
The kids participated in zip lining, rock climbing, bull riding (Vigeland rode the mechanical bull for 30 seconds),obstacle courses, karaoke and a game called "Unfair Four Square."
Swenson said the kids even swam completely around Texas (the swimming pool shaped like the state of Texas).
"I was impressed with how easy it was to get around in Houston," said Hein. The BP kids and their leaders stayed at the Marriott Marquis.
In addition to the uplifting faith experiences during the week, the BP kids said they made lots of friends. "I met someone from Austraila and loved the accent," Hein said.
Swenson said he met new friends from Blue Earth, Alden-Conger in Minnesota and also from South Dakota, Montana and New York.
The BP kids and adult leaders saw some of the remnants of the hurricane that struck Houston last year. "We saw some garbage on the curbs," Mary Worke said.
The floods even damaged the school where the group performed their service project. "There were lots of abandoned properties caused by the flood damage," interjected Pastor Heidi.
"The people of Houston were so welcoming to us," said Sorensen, noting that First Lutheran always promotes itself as the Welcome Place.
Pastor Heidi said worldwide, the ELCA is known for its youth gatherings. The ELCA Youth Gathering has a long history going back to 1902. It will be hosted in Minneapolis in 2021. Many of the First Lutheran and Red Oak kids say they hope to volunteer for that Youth Gathering.
The ELCA sums up the week of the Youth Gathering as follows:
• 437 hair donations to children with hair loss
• 1,248 units of blood donated from 987 donors
• 40,000 books donated at Blast Off for Books
• 700 individuals attended MYLE and visited 13 service sites
• $260,000-plus raised for ELCA's Global Farm Challenge
• Thanks to 31,242 registered Gathering participants
"If we get the kids there (to the Youth Gathering), God will be there too," said Pastor Heidi.
"The whole week is an interesting leadership experience and the kids don't know they are learning because they are having so much fun," Heimgartner reasoned.
"The seed of faith is there and the fruit of the Youth Gathering will be remembered forever," Heimgartner said.
Referring to Ephesians 2:18, Pastor Heidi said God's call changes everything, God's love changes everything, hope changes everything, grace changes everything and Jesus changes everything.
The leaders and youths offer many thanks for a supportive community.
The students at First Lutheran raised over $35,000 to fund the trip. Any leftover monies will be diverted to future Gatherings.
Hein and Swenson both encouraged those younger than them to "take a shot" at attending future Youth Gatherings.
"If you're on the fence about going, I say 'do it,'" said Swenson.
An appreciation dinner is planned at a date to be determined and will be held at First Lutheran Church.
"I'm really glad I was able to go on the trip and the real rewarding part was going on this type of trip with these great kids," Bishop volunteered.