Tag Archives: Spirituality

Native Americans and Christianity circa 2010

Without researching actual statistics, I doubt whether the percentage of native Americans within any Lutheran denomination is significant.  Although the ELCA has general goals for minority membership, the reality remains that most of us are descended from northern  European immigrants.  The reasons are primarily historical; when our ancestors arrived to make America their new home, they were not here as missionaries, and their communities remained insular.  My home congregation in Upsala, Minnesota, formed by Swedes in the 1880’s, continued with services in the language of the homeland until the 1920’s.  Even the small pockets of Danes in the neighborhood were largely outsiders.  When my grandfather Julius (the son of Swedish immigrants, and the youngest, rebellious sibling) married grandmother Olga (daughter of Danish immigrants) around the time of WWI, it was a mixed marriage.

Not so with Roman Catholics and Anglicans who came to the midwest first as missionaries to native Americans, and thus there are vestigial pockets of Catholic and Anglican native Americans.  This was especially obvious to me as I attended several Episcopal Diocesan conventions this fall.  In the Minnesota delegation and the northern Wisconsin Diocese of Fond du Lac, the Ojibwe lay and clergy presence was significant.  Two years ago, an Ojibwe priest was a finalist for the office of presiding Bishop for the Minnesota diocese.

Native American dancersTo what extent should native American cultural and religious heritage be reflected in their Christian religious practices?  Earlier this fall, I attended a weekend religious retreat consisting of mostly Lutherans.  A young man, a native American from Minneapolis, who had been raised Lutheran by his adoptive parents, was asked to offer a prayer.  He did so with a native American chant, which I found refreshing and spiritual, but I wondered how others received it.  No one said anything.

Yesterday’s Star Tribune newspaper (the leading Minnesota daily) contained an article about a small Roman Catholic congregation located within the native American community of Minneapolis whose members are nearly all native American.  Seems the local archdiocese is coming down hard on certain of their rituals:

Buffalo hide adorns the altar. Sage is burned to help cleanse the heart, soul and mind. Ojibwe and Lakota languages are used in many of the prayers and songs. Traditional Indian elements like these have been part of the worship service for decades at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis, the only Twin Cities Catholic parish with a predominantly Indian congregation.

Founded in 1975, Gichitwaa Kateri has added Indian elements to the Catholic ceremony for nearly two decades. A lodge made of willow, structured like a dome-shaped Ojibwe wigwam, contains a bundle that holds sacred things, including the Eucharist. Traditional Ojibwe medicines such as tobacco, cedar, sage and sweet grass are used as regular parts of the Sunday Eucharist. Drums and prayers and songs in Ojibwe and Lakota are also prominent.

The future use of Indian practices, however, is being questioned by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which temporarily suspended mass at the church last month after conflict arose over the use of specialized wine.

The congregation had been using mustum, a grape juice with minimal fermentation, as part of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Not only does mustum have linkages to native American culture, it also is safe for the numerous recovering alcoholics within the congregation.  Not good enough, says the archdiocese, and mass has been suspended at the congregation.

Maureen Headbird, 54, a church trustee, said the nearly 100 members of the tight-knit parish would be greatly saddened and disappointed if their church lost its distinctive elements, because they are an important part of their Indian heritage.

“We want to make sure our community stays the way it is,” said Headbird, who is Indian and was raised Catholic. “When you come to our parish, you really have to have an open mind to see what we do. Sometimes that doesn’t work out for everybody.”

A historic day—and insignificant: UPDATED WITH VIDEO

The title of this post comes from St Paul area ELCA Synod Bishop Peter Rogness. 

At the Saturday press conference prior to the Rite of Reception held in St Paul, Minnesota for three lesbian pastors (Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Anita Hill), Bishop Rogness alluded to the obvious historic significance of the formal ELCA welcome to the roster of ordained clergy but also reminded those assembled that the three pastors will now do the same things they did last week, last month, last year and for many years before that.  Everything has changed and nothing has changed.  Pastors Frost and Zillhart will continue with their hospice ministries and Pastor Hill will return to her pastoral call to St Paul Reformation Lutheran Church.  For over sixty years combined, these three have been responding to their calls to the ministry, and now they will continue as before. 

“Few who have personal knowledge of them as persons or of the ministries they’ve done would question that the love of the God we meet in Jesus Christ has been proclaimed and lived through them,” said the bishop.

“What then has changed?” came the question from the assembled press corps.

Pastor Hill responded, “It is the message of welcome we now hear from our church.”

Pastor Frost added, “And the message goes out from here to the ears of other gays and lesbians who hear the call to ministry, but even more importantly, to the whole host, the entire gay community.  Here is a church where you are welcome.”

Pastor Zillhart spoke symbolically, befitting the religious ceremony to follow.  “Today we will join hands with all those who blessed our call over the past twenty years and with all those who will come after.”

[With apologies to the speakers, I have paraphrased their comments as I heard them at the press conference]

With the conclusion of the press conference, I joined my wife and friends Phil and Barb from Northfield in the spacious sanctuary of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, the same venue that had witnessed the extraordinary ordination of Pastor Hill nearly a decade earlier.  The assembled crowd stirred and swelled as a Woodwind Quartet played variations on a “Hymn of Gladness”, the Chancel Choir sang “Al Shlosha D’Varim”, and the Chancel Brass announced the beginning of the processional with a “Fanfare and Chorus”.  Through my tears, I struggled to sing the words of the processional hymn.

Here in this place the new light is streaming, now is the darkness vanished away; see in this space our fears and our dreamings brought here to you in the light of the day.  Gather us in, the lost and forsaken, gather us in, the blind and the lame, call to us now, and we shall awaken, we shall arise at the sound of our name.

Lutheran Church of the RedeemerThe entire procession of bishops, active and retired, and countless clergy filed past through four stanzas of the hymn and more before all had reached their place, and then former Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herb Chilstrom, led us in halting voice and failing eyesight in a litany of confession, which concluded with words of encouragement from the prophet Isaiah:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overcome you.  You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

Hymns and prayers and greetings and readings followed and then the gospel acclamation of the Chancel Choir with the congregation joining in the refrain as a procession carried the gospel book to the center of the gathering:

My heart shall sing of the day you  bring.  Let the fires of your justice burn.  Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.

Preaching Minister, Pastor Barbara Lundblad, professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary, read the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 20, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.  And then she preached from this text, as only she can do, with gentle humor and prophetic insight.  She said that this Matthew text was suggested by Pastor Hill in an email, which addressed those who question her ministry.

We are doing you no wrong by being received to the ELCA roster. … So why must our reception be seen as sullying the ministry for everyone? Do you not see the pain of not having … [our work] acknowledged for all these years?

Or, as the gracious master in the parable asks, “are you envious because I am generous?”

Then came the Rite of Reception.  Pastors Frost, Zillhart, and Hill knelt before the altar.  They and the congregation exchanged promises “to give faithful witness in the world, that God’s love may be known”.  The ordained clergy clustered about and laid on hands. Then the three moved to the center aisle and heard the words of their bishop,

By Joey McLeister, Mpls Star Tribune Let it be recognized and acclaimed that Ruth, Phyllis, and Anita are called and ordained ministers in the church of Christ.  They have Christ’s authority to preach the word of God and administer the sacraments, serving God’s people as together we bear God’s creative and redeeming love to all the world.

The applause from the standing congregation was long and loud.

The website of St Paul Reformation Church broadcast the ceremony live online, and the webcast is still available.

The video of the news report on Twin Cities television, KARE 11, is copied below:

A look back at Holy Week

As a blog that wrestles with denominational politics, it was pretty quiet here last week, and that’s a good thing.  I’m sure the temperature will rise again on ELCA, Lutheran CORE, NALC, and LCMC controversies, but Holy Week was an appropriately peaceful interlude.  The one item to note from last week was the positive news from the ELCA that 2010 has seen forty-one new mission “starts” according to an ELCA press release.

These new starts represent what America is becoming, as 23 (of the 41 new starts) are among immigrant populations … Of the 41 new starts 12 are “worshiping communities” authorized by the ELCA’s 65 synods. These are communities with ministry potential.

Several of these are residuals of ELCA congregations that voted to leave but with a remnant of ELCA supporters pursuing an ELCA mission start.  Lilly, one of the frequent commenters on this blog, reports on such a group in her Wisconsin community.

Before moving on to the inevitable skirmishes, allow me one look back at Holy Week at my
ELCA congregation (Bethel) and the rest of the Northfield ELCA community.  Thursday morning, the normal “Blue Monday” gathering of six or eight ELCA clergy was rescheduled as a “power lunch” to coordinate weekend events.  The Maunday Thursday service at Bethel was a dramatic skit themed around Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” masterpiece.  While the thirteen actors portraying Jesus and the disciples held their Da Vinci pose, each in turn stepped to a microphone and offered a monologue.  I portrayed Andrew.  The skit ended with Jesus sharing the bread and wine with his disciples who then stepped in front of the table and shared the meal with the congregation.  Good Friday evening at Bethel featured a Stations of the Cross presentation.  Saturday, most of the local ELCA clergy gathered for a traditional Easter Vigil in Boe Chapel on the campus of St. Olaf.  Bethel’s new associate pastor–Charlie Ruud (a St Olaf graduate)–was honored to preside over the eucharistic liturgy.  Dramatic readings were accompanied by the pipe organ riffs of St Olaf music professor John Ferguson and rising incense followed by candle lighting and bell ringing.  A combined choir concluded with Handel’s Hallelujah chorus.  The Hallelujah chorus also highlighted each of the three Easter Sunday services at Bethel.

After a week of familiar Lutheran liturgies, I borrow a Youtube video from Lutheran Pastor and blogger John Petty which is a delightful sampling of Eastern Orthodox Easter music, Christos Anesti, Christ is risen.

Liberal and religious??

When I began this blog eight months ago, I chose the title, “Spirit of a Liberal”, and its theme, “a blog of progressive, religious themes” as intentional, in-your-face statements.  I favor unfettered intellectual inquiry, on the one hand, but also embrace the mystery, on the other.  I reject the hatred and bigotry clothed in Christian themes (“who wants to be lumped in with all the other Christians, especially the ones you see on TV protesting gay marriage, giving money to charlatans, and letting priests molest children?”) while accepting the moments of spiritual fulfillment in my own life.  Calvin was mostly right; our rituals, symbols, and myths are just that, but he was wrong when he said they were mere symbols.  We speak our unspeakable truths in our mythologies.  We doubt, and we hope.  The Old Testament book of Job, with all its uncertainties, is my favorite Biblical book; if only the editor hadn’t added a sappy, happy ending.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton and acclaimed author of Beyond Belief and other works, spoke of her own faith journey as a fallen evangelical whose academic pursuits conflicted with the unthinking literalism of her youth; yet, when faced with the death of her child, she found herself back in a church because it “spoke to my condition”.

I happened across a superb article entitled, “I am a closet Christian”, which marvelously expresses similar sentiments.  Brooklynite Ada Calhoun shares her faith journey in the article, and her theme about religion in general and Christianity in particular is summed up in her line, “Not how it’s right or just, but how — and this may sound stupid, but it’s what I think about religion in general — it works.”

Here’s a longer statement:

All of us need help with birth and death and good and evil, and religion can give us that. It doesn’t solve problems. It reminds you that, yes, those challenges are real and important and folks throughout history have struggled and thought about them too, and by the way, here is some profound writing on the subject from people whose whole job is to think about this stuff.

The idea of an eternal community brings me comfort: I like the image of a long table extending backward and forward in time, and everyone who’s ever taken Communion is sitting at it. The Bible at the 1920s stone church where my husband and I were married was filled with the names of people in the community who’d married, been born and died. When my son was baptized in our church in a traditional Easter eve service, the light spreading from candle to candle through the pews of the dark church made me feel, at least for one moment, we were united in a sense of gratitude for new life and awe in the face of the numinous.

Please read the whole article.

Rest in Peace, Char Taylor

For those who noticed the lack of posts on this blog for the last week, I have been out of state for the funeral of my sister-in-law, Char Taylor.  Char passed after five difficult months following complications of surgery.  Finally at home in Green Valley, Arizona under the care of hospice, she passed quietly with her husband and three adult children with her.

A dozen of us from Minnesota and two more from Iowa (Char’s siblings, their spouses, and Char’s nieces and nephews) gathered in the Tucson area for a long weekend in a bittersweet family reunion centered around Char’s funeral.  Author Elaine Pagels wrote the following in her book Beyond Belief, which seems apropos:

—the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice.  As I stood watching, a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death.

Here was a place to weep … here was a community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.  Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable.

Rest in peace, Char.  We will miss you.

Monastic Vocations “in the world” for Catholics and non-Catholics

Northfield friend and Lutheran Pastor Keith Homstad is a Benedictine oblate of St John’s Abbey in central Minnesota:

Monastic prayerAn Oblate is a lay or clerical, single or married, person formally associated to a particular monastery. Oblates seek to live life in harmony with the spirit of Saint Benedict as revealed in the Rule of Saint Benedict and its contemporary expression. Oblates are invited to come to Saint John’s for the Annual Oblate Retreat in July and the Days of Recollection offered in Advent and Lent, but they are welcome to visit us at any time.

Keith and I recently spent a day at St John’s, along with my daughter Karin, that concluded with evening prayer with the monastic community in the resplendent Abbey Church.  We prayed and sang five psalms as part of the cycle in which 150 psalms are prayed monthly.  We also visited our familiar haunts at this progressive Catholic Abbey and University, including the School of Theology where I studied in the early ‘90s and Keith at the end of the ‘90s, the Great Hall, Alcuin Library, and Sexton Commons. 

The St John’s Bible, a project a decade in the making, is nearing completion, and we toured the exhibit.

In 1998, Saint John’s Abbey and University commissioned renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible … a work of art that unites an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.

Copies of the Gospels from the St John’s Bible were loaned to the ELCA for use at the recent 2009 Churchwide assembly.  These were used for the reading of the Gospel as part of daily worship and at the concluding Service of the Word across the street at Central Lutheran church.  In a stirring processional, the magnificent book was brought up the aisle at Central Lutheran and placed prominently in front of the altar for the service.  Blogger Kristen Swenson recently offered a brief post about the St John’s Bible.

St John’s Abbey was the setting for Kathleen Norris’ popular book, The Cloister Walk, which is described by Publisher’s Weekly as follows:

The allure of the monastic life baffles most lay people, but in her second book, Norris goes far in explaining it. The author, raised Protestant, has been a Benedictine oblate, or lay associate, for 10 years, and has lived at a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota for two. Here, she compresses these years of experience into the diary of one liturgical year, offering observations on subjects ranging from celibacy to dealing with emotions to Christmas music. Like the liturgy she loves, this meandering, often repetitive book is perhaps best approached through the lectio divina practiced by the Benedictines, in which one tries to “surrender to whatever word or phrase captures the attention.” There is a certain nervous facility to some of Norris’s jabs at academics, and she is sometimes sanctimonious. But there is no doubting her conviction, exemplified in her defense of the much-maligned Catholic “virgin martyrs,” whose relevance and heroism she wants to redeem for feminists. What emerges, finally, is an affecting portrait of one of the most vibrant since Thomas Merton of the misunderstood, often invisible world of monastics, as seen by a restless, generous intelligence.

I regularly follow the blog of Carl McColman, THE WEBSITE OF UNKNOWING, which is “all about Christian mysticism, Celtic wisdom, interfaith spirituality, the emergent conversation, and assorted other topics.”  He recently explored the attraction to lay monasticism in a blog post entitled “Cloister of the Heart.”  Check it out.

Lay Cistercians, incidentally, are like Benedictine Oblates, Secular Franciscans, or Third Order Carmelites: people who are not called to the consecrated religious life, but who are nonetheless drawn to it. As its name implies, Lay Cistercians are laypeople, most of us married with ordinary jobs and lives “in the world,” who nevertheless find that the culture and spirituality of monasticism has a real and significant role to play in our ongoing formation as Christians. We are not “monk wanna-bes” so much as we function as a kind of ambassador or translator, who interfaces with both the monastic community and the world at large, drinking deeply from the monastic well as a way to nourish the good life we have been called to live, outside the monastic cloister.

Keith and I plan to return to St John’s next week to hear progressive Catholic author and activist Sister Joan Chittister speak.

ELCA Convention aftermath: Is the Dust Settling? #CWA09 & #Goodsoil09

It is now over three weeks since the ELCA 2009 Churchwide assembly adopted provisions allowing gay clergy and possibly gay marriage.  In my own congregation, I have heard that a few may be leaving as a backlash, but a couple of my friends who earlier voiced disapproval of the ELCA actions are still there—yesterday, one served as communion assistant and one will be leading the men’s group that reconvenes next week after a summer hiatus.  Another said, “I will never agree, but so long as I am allowed to disagree, this is still my church, and I won’t leave.”  Last week, our synod bishop hosted a meeting that I perceived as hopeful, an indication that fallout may be slight.

The organized opposition, Lutheran Core / WordAlone network, will be hosting a gathering of the disaffected next week to consider options; for now, their website counsels patience and avoidance of rash decisions.  It appears that Lutheran Core may lean toward creating an alternate power structure within the ELCA, a formally organized opposition synod. On the other hand, they also speak very harshly about the ELCA actions and urge withholding of financial support of churchwide activities.  Last week, I linked to Lutherpunk’s blogpost that rejected the idea of a financial boycott because the ministries and missions most in need of funds would be harmed by blocking the monetary pipeline. 

Professor David YeagoA new blog entitled Lutherans Persisting has appeared as a voice for the “traditionalists” within the ELCA, and I earlier commented on theologian Carl Braaten’s missive that appears there.  Over the weekend, professor David Yeago of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary of South Carolina offered his own musings entitled, In the AftermathIt is pretty thick reading, as theological writings often are, and laypersons may find his essay difficult to probe.  Yet, his tone is conciliatory and directed toward the traditionalists who disagreed with the actions of the voting members at the Churchwide 2009 Assembly. 

He calls on the traditionalists to offer grace rather than judgment toward those with whom they disagree.  “Is this the point at which we must judge that this branch of the church has died and withered?”  Yeago answers the question with another:  “How could it ever be my place to make the judgment that God has rejected a fellowship of his baptized children?”

Rather than pointing judging fingers at the ELCA and those who support gay clergy and gay marriage (he calls them “revisionists”), Yeago tells the traditionalists to look inward, not to revisit their deeply held opinions, but to engage in fellowship despite disagreement, “the wrong of another is not seen as a reason to separate but a reason to draw near.”

Yeago gives theological voice to the sentiment of my friend … “as long as I am allowed to disagree, this is my church, and I won’t leave.”

For myself, I cannot see that these decisions prevent me from continuing to do what I have been charged to do as a seminary teacher. If someone in authority were to tell me that I must suppress what I teach about marriage or the law of God because of these actions, then the situation would change. But that has not happened yet, and I do not know that it will ever happen. Likewise, I do not see that these decisions prevent me from hearing the gospel in my local congregation and being formed there as a disciple. Indeed, if I attend to what Luther says, the Assembly actions give me a great if painful opportunity to learn discipleship, to practice love. It seems rather a distraction to speculate about leaving when I have barely started to learn what I could about following Jesus right where I am.

How, then, shall the traditionalists live and act within the ELCA?

Let us traditionalists be the ones who live most deeply in the Scriptures, who bring forth the bread of life most richly from the Scriptures, who let themselves be most drastically challenged and remade by the word of God, who live most intensely in prayer, who are able to teach prayer to others. Let us traditionalists be in the forefront of ministry among the poor, the apparently hopeless, the despised; let us be the ones who volunteer to go to the hard places. Let our revisionist brothers and sisters, let homosexual persons in the church, be conscious when they meet us mostly of how much we care for them, how far we are willing to go for them, of the respect and honor with which we treat them, despite our clear disagreement with aspects of their teaching and/or life.

I encourage you to read and ruminate on Professor Yeago’s thoughts.  Of course, as a “revisionist” according to his definition, I disagree that the ELCA’s actions were wrong, but I think he expresses the Christian love behind the “bound conscience” provisions of the various assembly resolutions.  Though platitudes often seem trite, they sometimes are the simplest expressions of the truth; and so it is with the admonition that “we must agree to disagree”.  

As one of the commenters to Yeago’s essay suggested, his call “to be the ones who live most deeply in the scriptures,” … etc., should be everyone’s calling—the traditionalist’s and the revisionist’s–the Christian call.  This is not a time for judgment but for grace.

Benedictine S. Joan Chittister to speak in Collegeville, Minnesota

Collegeville Colors What could be better?  The campus of St Johns surrounded by hardwoods dressed in autumnal red and gold and yellow.  The Great Hall and the School of Theology: perhaps an encounter with a professor from my days here a decade and a half ago.  A tour led by Northfield friend, Lutheran Pastor Keith Homstad, an oblate of this Benedictine Abbey.  Capped off by an evening address by Sister Joan Chittister, entitled What in the Monastic endeavor touches the heart of the gospel?

Sister Joan is a leading Catholic feminist and voice for progressive Catholicism.  Among other liberal causes, she is an outspoken advocate for the ordination of women to the priesthood.  The press release notes just a tip of the iceberg for her accomplishments:

Joan Chittister S. Joan Chittister, OSB, a Benedictine Sister of Erie (Erie, Pa.), is a best-selling author and international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women’s issues, and contemporary spirituality. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource for spiritual seekers. S. Joan received the annual Outstanding Leadership Award from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious at its 2007 national assembly. She writes a regular column for the National Catholic Reporter. Her most recent books are The Breath of the Soul and The Fine Art of Living.

Her lecture is sponsored by the Conversatio Lifelong Learning Program of Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary, 8 p.m., Friday, October 9, 2009 Stephen B. Humphrey Theater, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.

ELCA Youth Gathering: the journey to New Orleans

Keith Pearson is the pastor of First Lutheran of Hector, Minnesota … and my brother in law.  He just got back from the ELCA youth gathering in New Orleans, along with a handful of youth from his own parish.  They were part of a larger group of several dozen from the area who journeyed together.  Pastor Keith has consented to a reprint of his five days of blogs, his own first person account.  Check out Keith’s blog, which contains a ton of pictures.

Day One

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Much  of our first day was simply about getting there. We had some last minute schedule changes, some delays, and one lost bag, but in the end we arrived here safe and sound.

Keith's group Once on the ground in New Orleans we checked in to our hotel and then headed to the New Orleans Convention Center where our activities began. At supper time we managed to sample a little taste of New Orleans at “The Crazy Lobster,” a restaurant right on the edge of the Mighty Mississippi. Some were bold in their food orders, others stuck to burgers and fries. We even had a little live New Orleans Jazz music to accompany our meal.

It was pretty exciting to see this big old city filled with teens from around the country. Everywhere you look you could see groups of kids (most in flocks of like-colored shirts) soaking in the sights and sounds. Quick shout-outs happened between the groups, declaring where they came from and inquiring about our group. I have to say, there is something in the air that’s pretty exciting.

After supper it was back the hotel for “Community/Hotel Life.” There was a band in the ball room and swimming at the pool. The kids scattered to their preferred activities before turning in for the night.

Day Two

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Day 2 was the real beginning or our New Orleans experience. We began the day with our turn in the interactive learning center. There were games for the sake of playing together and there were games and activities that made you think about your role in the world.

We also had our first full day on the streets of New Orleans. That in itself is quite an experience. This is definitely NOT Renville County. You’ll have to ask the kids what they thought and what they saw. All in all the City is very happy to have us here and they are being very gracious and welcoming to this massive influx of teenagers. Although this is still a large city and we are always watchful for dangers and all the other darker sides of humanity that come with this sort of setting, still we have felt quite safe and secure everywhere we have gone.

Our closing event for the evening was our first “Mass Gathering”. Try to imagine 37,000 teens and their adult leaders filling the seats of a major venue like the Superdome. Now imagine a 20 story illuminated cross, pounding music and cheering crowds. It had all the elements of a major rock concert, but the star of the show was Jesus. There were wonderful speakers telling their dramatic stories of faith in action and the power of the Holy Spirit working through simple, often young people. There were teams of teens acting out lessons and preaching the gospel in ways that had the kids cheering, laughing, and struck silent by the power of what they were experiencing. There was definitely something electric about the evening – and it had nothing to do with lights and sound or video projecting jumbotrons. The underlying current was a power of something unseen and yet profoundly felt. It was the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I wish you could have been here.

Day Three

Service Day

Friday, July 24, 2009

Day 3 was our service day. It began REALLY early. We had to be at our “launch site” at 6:30 a.m. having already had breakfast and packed for the day. That means we had to leave our hotel by 6:00 a.m. to make the 20 minute walk to the Convention Center where we would pick up the bus that would take us to where our day would begin. We didn’t know what we would be doing exactly, but our category of choice was “Health and Wellness.”

The organizers of the Gathering had explained to us that the situation on the ground was changing daily and so they couldn’t know in advance exactly where we would be or what we would be doing. When we first boarded our bus we were told that we were going to a day-camp where we would be working with children. When we arrived at the site it was actually a high school football stadium that was in need of attention. It seems the field had been a site for helicopters to land and ambulances and other transport vehicles to pull in and get the injured and sick out of the city after hurricane Katrina. All of this activity on wet ground had left ruts in the field and the flood waters had coated the concrete stands with algae and mold.

The first question that came to my mind was, how can this still be a problem after four years? Most of what we have seen in and around New Orleans looks pretty normal. We have not witnessed any blatant remnants of the hurricane damage. Once we started working I began to understand. Our tasks for the day were to paint a swing set, scrape and paint a locker room, fill in the ruts in the field, and power-wash the concrete stadium seating area. We came fresh and eager to dig in and get to work. I dare say we even came with a little attitude (it’s part of that midwest work ethic). Surely we could handle this.

Then reality set in. The tools and supplies we needed were not available immediately, and when they did arrive they were still in short supply. There wasn’t enough paint to cover all the surfaces that needed it. Rather than three or four power washers there was only one. And then there was the heat! I don’t know what the temperature was or what the official humidity level reached, but it was positively oppressive. In a very short period of the physical output required for this work zapped the energy out of everyone. We struggled to keep pouring in enough water to keep ahead of the dehydration. We all kept a high vigil over each other to head off any heat-related problems. Talking with Isaiah, the sole staff person at this facility, he thanked us over and over again. He said if it were not for our help all this work would be his solo task. Keith service

In the end we had to give up the effort a little ahead of schedule. And although we had accomplished much, many left feeling as though we could have done more, disappointed that the job was not finished. I told the group that this was true for just about everything God calls us to do. We rarely get to see the end of the job and there is always more to do than we have time, tools or the ability to do on our own. We have to give thanks for the ability to do what we can with the resources at our disposal and trust God to finish with the job with the hands of others.

At our mass gathering this evening the theme was Hope. Through the compelling stories of this evening’s speakers we heard that it is through small and large acts of kindness and love that hope springs for those who may have felt their situation was hopeless. Hope is the fruit of love, and hope breaks open a world of possibilities.

I am extremely proud of our kids for the gift of hope they provided this day. They served tirelessly and joyfully, and would have worked much harder and longer if we would have allowed them to do so. I did not hear one complaint nor one request to stop.

Day Four

A tour that expanded our understanding.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Our day began with a bus tour of the city’s four major districts. We began with beautiful mansions and lush gardens and finished with the infamous “Lower 9th Ward” – the site of some of the worst devastation. It was quite a contrast going from beautiful historic mansions that were virtually untouched, to one of the poorest areas of the country nearly obliterated by the storm. In fact, if it were not for a few traces of concrete and paved streets you may not know anyone ever lived here.

It has been four years since hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and so much remains to be done. It is humbling and maybe even a little disheartening to look at the tremendous amount of work left to be done. It would be easy to give up and just move on, but God rarely sends us down paths that are easy. When we hear the stories from people who have lived through these past four years, and when they show us photos from those first days I am encouraged. Progress has been made and things are much better, but there is still so much to do.

Our day finished off with another “Mass Gathering” at the Superdome – the same place that became an island of hope for the truly desperate survivors. There to kick off our final big night together we were greeted by the Mayor of New Orleans and received a personal “thank you” from him. That was followed by a letter of thanks and encouragement from none other than our country’s president, Barack Obama. You know you have been part of something truly significant and important when the President of the United States takes notice and is suitably impressed with your actions.

Day Five

Saying goodbye, telling the story.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Our last day in New Orleans would be mostly a travel day. We would not be doing any projects, attending any workshops, or joining in the final “Mass Gathering” that would officially close our event. We would, however, say goodbye to New Orleans and begin reflecting on our experience.

While the kids enjoyed a welcome opportunity to sleep in a bit and then pack up for the trip home I stopped down in the hotel restaurant for a bite to eat. I decided to treat myself to a real meal for the first time since our first night in New Orleans. The restaurant was nearly empty (I was there kind of early), and so my waitress was waiting patiently for more customers to come. I asked her a simple question: “Do you live here in New Orleans?” When she said “Yes” I then asked the question that quite literally opened the flood gates: “Where were you when the flood came?”

Her name was Brenda and she had been on vacation with her family. And so she had to watch the events unfold along with the rest of the world. She couldn’t return home for two and a half months. The Marriott kept her and all the other employees on the payroll and even got emergency money from Mr. Marriott himself (she told all of this with deep appreciation). She lost several friends who were trapped and killed by the flood waters. Most of her family was scattered, thankfully all surviving, but most never to return to New Orleans. “I haven’t seen my one sister since the storm. I used to see her every Sunday. Now she’s just a voice on the phone to me.”

She spoke of her love for New Orleans and how this was where her heart is. She was grateful for the places that had been her temporary home while waiting to get back to the city, but said that nice as they were they were not home.  She also spoke with hope that others would eventually feel the pull of their hearts to return to New Orleans. Still, she said, “I don’t think New Orleans will ever be the same.” I suspect she is right. It will never be the same, but I do believe a new New Orleans will emerge from this experience, and I think I will like that city.

Now it is our responsibility to tell the story of the people of New Orleans. Ask one of the kids or chaperones who attended the 2009 ELCA National Youth Gathering about their experience.