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Lost... that was what I was at the start of this trip. As some have noticed we started our trip a few days before the Youth Gathering started. We were doing our yearly trip to Jackson, Mississippi. The trip was going wonderfully... until a few particular hard questions came up in discussions. While I was trying to think of my answers I realized I didn't know what to think and I found that I didn't know what to think because I didn't know who I was.
It wasn't amnesia. I knew my name, age, address, family... everything about me... everything but my face. I couldn't picture my face in my mind... I started to get scared and even more confused. When I thought of the others around me I could see their face, remember their actions, hear their voice... but when I thought of myself I could only see my hands and feet, my arms and legs. Only the portions of me that I don't need a mirror to see.
As I was trying to muddle my was through this confusion I didn't want to be alone, but I started to become more distant from the group... the group wouldn't let me go. As we arrived in New Orleans the sleeping arrangements were different from those we had in Jackson, so I had new roommates. Due to the new roommates I got to know people better than I did before the trip, but I still didn't completely know myself. And the simplest of actions held me together, holding hands as we traversed the crowded streets around the dome and convention center, hugs (even when they were to comfort another), late night talks, etc.
I knew I was lost before I came on this trip. I was hoping it would help me find my way back to the light... it did. Even though the people around me didn't know what I was trying to deal with they were helpful by just being themselves. The goofy guys who provided comical relief, the girls who know how to hold deep and meaningful conversations, and the leaders who kept us all together. While we were in the interaction center we interacted with one another as well as the other groups with us. We kept mixing up the groups depending on what we wanted to do. The gathering helped us break down some of the walls in the group.
The Gathering provided an opportunity to worship with 36,000 people... that is an experience I would jump at the chance to do again. My epiphany came as we were worshiping. The Bishop told us a story about how his daughter had a time in her life were she was being torn by two halves, her white friends and her black friends, she was scared too. He then told us that we needed to remember our baptism, for in our baptism God claims us as his children. It was after this that my eyes started to get watery. I realized that what I had been looking for wasn't a face that I could see in a mirror. What I was looking for was a new path to God.
I remember that in the faith statement I wrote in ninth grade I wrote something like: I know God will always be with me in my times of doubt, and will welcome me with open arms when I find him again. Today at worship he welcomed me with open arms that I gladly accepted.
The Gathering has been so much more meaningful to me than I had ever expected it to be. From the interaction center to our day of service, the dome events to talking with the people of New Orleans, and the final gathering to worship.
Before the Gathering I was waiting for God to find me, but now I know he never lost me, I was the one who lost myself. Now as I picture myself in my mind I don't see images only of my hands and feet. I see a child of God who lost her way, but now she is wrapped safely in his arms. She is no longer lost, wandering on unknown paths. She has found God's grace.
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Letting our light shine, one light bulb at a time
The Servant Learning day made the most impact on me at the ELCA National Youth Gathering. The first couple days, I loved experiencing the huge, mile-long interaction center, 37,000-person Superdome, and abounding city, but I felt like those events were mostly geared for my enjoyment, to build me up. Speakers continually thanked us for being here, and our group of 12,000 had not yet done any service. I anticipated Saturday.
Our service project was with an organization called Green Light New Orleans, which provides free CFL light bulbs to lower-income neighborhoods in order to be more energy efficient and produce less carbon dioxide. This saves people a great deal of money on purchasing light bulbs, as they last 5-7 years, and on their monthly electric bills. As the name alludes, these compact fluorescent lights also preserve the environment by contributing less to greenhouse gases and climate change.
On Saturday, our group of 23 youth and adults from Windsor Heights Lutheran combined with two other groups and took a bus to Kennan, LA. Then we were sent to different apartments in small groups. I really enjoyed entering people’s houses to change all of their light bulbs, because not only were we making an immediate difference in a pretty simple way (especially because I’m tall J), but we were literally immersed in Southern culture in a new way. Each home we visited was friendly and welcoming. One woman expressed her view of the dangers of New Orleans, while her two-year-old son showed us all his cool toys one by one. Another lady was simply amazed at our openness to change her light bulbs, asking questions such as, “Oh, can you maybe do my bedroom too? Oh you can do the kitchen too?”
They were all very appreciative, and I thought it was pretty fun work anyway – we got to be in nice air-conditioned apartments, meet people, and change their light bulbs. As easy as that. They were glad that we traveled from Iowa to make a difference around New Orleans. The friendliness and hospitality caught my eye. Most of them knew that the neighbor to the left did not get home from work until 3, and many opened their doors and asked, “Oh are you here with the light bulbs? We got some too!”
Think about it – not many people I know that live near me back home would be open to four teenagers and two adults walking through every room of their houses, seeing how they live, even if it was to give them free stuff. (We install the bulbs). We can tend to be self-conscious about messes or overprotective of our material belongings. We’d rather take the easy way out sometimes, rather than make a change, even if it’s for the better. My house in Iowa still has regular incandescent light bulbs, either because we did not know the depth of the benefits of CFLs, or we were just not willing to spend the extra dollar to make a positive long-term change. Overall, this fun experience helped us bond with the people and each other while directly benefiting them and the environment. It also taught us to be open to improvements and support of others.
In the spiritual sense, it was cool to literally spread God’s light to the world. Along with the physical help of the new light bulbs, I hope the people can respect the kindness of our Christian group and know that we truly want to help. I hope they can feel the love, which is first the love of Christ shining through us. Slowly we can hopefully take away the hypocritical Christian perspective that some have and bring them to Christ too. “May they see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.” –(Matthew 5:16) Works also grow us, as Christians, because we must act selflessly for others and we therefore become more like Jesus. Philippians 2:1-8 were some theme verses for the Gathering, continuously scrolling across a screen in the dome, reminding us to live humbly like Christ, placing others before ourselves, in order to live for God.
Saturday night’s dome event, (singing worship songs, listening to speakers and music, and learning) and Sunday’s sermon were especially moving for me. A couple speakers talked about God working strongly through our work. We may be just one person, having a little light, but God binds us all together in one body of Christ to be powerful. Saturday night, we each took out our cell phones and cameras in the dark dome, and watched it light up all around us. 37,000 little lights. It was an amazing sight! Later, we also sang some well-known worship songs with the band The Katinas, which got people really excited for God! You could feel the energy and joy in that huge room, which once held the homeless people after Hurricane Katrina! We were helping God bring good out of the pain! I really liked the song “I Am Free”: “through you the blind will see, through you the dead will rise…I am free to run…I am free to live for You!”
On Sunday we heard the story of Jesus’s miracle of Feeding the Five Thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. Andrew and Phillip did not give up, and Jesus worked a miracle through the little they had. In the same way, God still uses us today. No talent or effort is too small for God to use to serve His people for His glory! Isn’t that awesome? If we come to Him with the little we have, such as one day of service in New Orleans, He can make more great things happen as a result, encourage more people to act, or change lives forever!
So let’s go out, with our one light bulb, shining with the everlasting power of Christ, not only for 7 years, but for eternity.
P.S. The “Found” blog touched my heart – I’m so happy for you!! God is amazing! He is Life! Amen!