This article originally was published in The Lutheran magazine.

For some, Detroit calls to mind an image of despair. A steady economic decline since its heyday in the 1950s triggered a host of troubles that garnered national attention in 2013 when the city was declared bankrupt. Although it has since emerged from financial ruin, the negative press caused many to question why Detroit was chosen as the host city for the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering.

It was a decision that Heidi Hagstrom, ELCA Youth Gathering director, describes as an act of faith. The leadership team, made up of some 30 adult volunteers from across the church and five churchwide organization staff members, is adamant that God has called the ELCA to “show up” in Detroit.

And show up they will. More than 28,500 youth and adults are registered for the event, which will take place primarily in Detroit’s Cobo Center and Ford Field July 15-19. Teaching and music will center on the theme “Rise Up Together,” grounded in the Gospel of Mark.

“I can think of no better place to explore the theme of dying and rising than Detroit,” Heidi said. “It has known death and resurrection throughout its history but now sits at a critical and pivotal point. Many people have written off Detroit, but we [will] have the unique opportunity to see firsthand the resiliency of the people of Detroit.”

Youth will arrive in Detroit after months of preparation. “While we have been very busy with fundraising over the last year, the ‘Getting Ready’ materials helped [our youth] stay focused on our faith and how we can use our faith to serve those in need in Detroit,” said Jessica Brown, a senior high youth leader from Advent Lutheran Church, Harleysville, Pa. She says the 10 youth she’s accompanying to the event are most looking forward to their day of service.

Detroit, which has 65,000 abandoned properties within its 142 square miles, offers myriad opportunities for the youth to lend a helping hand. Seventy-five percent of the service projects will focus on beautifying areas plagued by blight, said Lisa Jeffreys, coordinator of service learning for the event.

“I can’t imagine a better time for the Gathering to be held in Detroit. Detroit is reinventing itself,” said Lisa, a native of the city. “For us to be able to walk alongside them at this time in our history is such an amazing opportunity for our participants.”

At many of the service sites, youth will work alongside and learn from Detroiters who are taking time out of their regular activities to volunteer. Youth will be trained to approach their service projects with a listening posture, something the Gathering’s leadership team has strived for since it started planning for the 2015 event, Heidi said.

Elizabeth Flores has lived in Detroit all 17 years of her life and is a member of Grace in Action, a new ELCA congregation there. Although she admits Detroit gets labeled, “it’s really a tight-knit community of people who are always there for you whenever you need something.”

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Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago.  Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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