“Here is the wonderful news. When it looks impossible, remember most of all that Jesus has changed everything.”

On the final night of the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering, a hush fell over the crowded stadium. Thousands of ELCA youth were tap-tap-tapping at their smartphones. They weren’t checking Snapchat. Instead they were texting a message to someone who needed encouragement.  

That message: “May God hold you in a grip of hope.” 

After completing the assignment, youth were instructed to turn on their phone flashlight and hold it high. One by one, tiny beacons of light dotted the stands, illuminating the room in a dazzling display of the Spirit at work. 

The moment demonstrated how the Gathering impacts participants—and everyone in their networks. 

“Jesus has the power to change the world, working through us,” said Caroline Salopek, 16, who attended the June 27-July 1 event in Houston with her congregation, Holy Trinity Lutheran, Laurel, Md. For members of this youth group, the Gathering’s central theme, “This changes everything” (Ephesians 2:8), was revealed in Scripture, stories, song and relationships. Living Lutheran was with them to get a glimpse of their experience. 

The journey begins 

Guided by adult leaders Stephanie Gonzales, Bobby Gonzales, Gary Kreh and their pastor, Connie Miller, the youth began their Gathering journey Sunday, June 24, with a 7:45 a.m. flight to Houston. 

At 5:45 a.m., a small group of parishioners met them at the airport to bestow traveling mercies. Cameron (C.J.) Jones, 14, was surprised to see his church family, saying, “It shows they really care about us.” 

For months, under Stephanie Gonzales’ direction, the 12 teens raised funds and studied the “Gathering Getting Ready Materials.” Earlier this year they dressed in plaid shirts and funky hats while serving Texas-style barbecue to Holy Trinity members for Gathering donations. While they didn’t bring those funky hats to Houston, they did pack eight sets of matching T-shirts and 60 pounds of books for the Gathering’s “Blast off for books” drive to help economically disadvantaged students. 

Nearly all of these youth were attending their first Gathering, and they were visibly excited. After their flight landed, the group traveled to the University of Houston for three days at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event (MYLE) preceding the Gathering. 

Wednesday:  God’s call changes everything 

On the Gathering’s opening night, waves of Lutheran youth and their adult leaders streamed into NRG Stadium. The air was abuzz with anticipation; the stands were awash with a kaleidoscope of colorful T-shirts. When the overhead lights dimmed, all eyes were on stage as the band LZ7 kicked off the Mass Gathering with electronic dance music proclaiming God’s glory.  

Holy Trinity’s youth sat in the upper section, with a bird’s-eye view of the 31,000 attending the Gathering. Tyler Ferrer, 17, was amazed to be surrounded by thousands of Lutheran peers. 

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton welcomed youth to the Gathering, urging them to listen for God’s “irresistible” call and to watch for God to “show up in places we least expect.” Dynamic speakers and musicians reflected on the night’s theme, “God’s call changes everything,” inspiring youth to consider their vocations. 

Caroline was moved by Ginny Owens’ stunning testimony. Blind from an early age, Owens defied her critics and became a successful singer and songwriter. “I couldn’t believe she’d accomplished so much,” Caroline said. “She overcame all her challenges. That’s helped me to believe I can too.”  

C.J.’s favorite speaker was Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer working to revoke sentencing for juveniles imprisoned with adults. After hearing Stevenson’s story, C.J. felt motivated to speak out when he sees something unjust.   

Youth exited the stadium smiling, amped up by all they heard and eager for the days ahead. “I’m really excited to connect more with God and deepen my faith,” Caroline said.  

Thursday: God’s love changes everything 

The youth rose early the next day to depart for the Salvation Army in Pasadena, Texas, where they would participate in service projects.  

One of the Gathering’s three programming tracks, Service Learning Day offers youth volunteering experience and faith-based reflection. During their orientation, they learned about accompaniment, an ELCA approach to mission defined as walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality.  

At the Salvation Army, Alicia Ribeiro, 15, and Michael Gonzales, 16, practiced accompaniment—and their Spanish—as they conversed with older adults. “They were so patient with me,” Alicia said. “I liked it because it felt like they were helping me rather than I was helping them. I’m kind of glad we could help each other.” 

For Michael, the experience was challenging. While he’s always done hands-on volunteer work, that day meant simply playing dominoes with older adults and his mother, Gonzales. “You don’t always think that just spending time with someone is sharing Christ,” she said. “I think the seniors were really appreciative.” 

Jordan Kreh, 16, and Samantha Ferrer, 16, helped organize giant cans of green beans, boxes of pasta and other items in the Salvation Army pantry. “It was really fun because we got to work together as a team to accomplish something really good,” Samantha said.  

Jordan left inspired to do more service in her community—and to invite her friends to join her.  

After completing their work, the youth were bused to NRG Arena for a celebration of service ceremony with 10,000 other service learning participants. Holy Trinity then spent the afternoon in the Community Life zone, racing on inflatables and scaling the rock climbing wall.  

At Mass Gathering, the youth heard the day’s theme, “God’s love changes everything,” reflected in story and song. The Guardian Drum and Bugle Corps ended the night with an explosive performance. 

Heading to her hotel after a long, full day, Alicia felt inspired by Houstonite and storyteller Marlon Hall’s message: “You already have God’s love. No one can give it back to you.”  

Friday: God’s grace changes everything 

This morning the youth arrived at NRG Center and found Interactive Learning Day activities underway: other groups were donating blood, working on a Habitat for Humanity build, participating in a refugee simulation and riding zip lines.  

Another Gathering programming track, Interactive Learning is a collection of exhibits designed to connect youth with God, their sense of purpose and God’s work in the world. It also includes play. 

Holy Trinity’s youth explored the ELCA colleges and universities exhibit and jumped in on volleyball and soccer games with their peers. They also wrote prayers and painted together. At the Peace Not Walls exhibit, Alicia learned how the ELCA and its global partners are building peace in the Holy Land.  

They delivered their $300 donation to ELCA World Hunger at the Global Farm Challenge exhibit. And later they attended practice for the mass cast, which was to perform during Friday’s Mass Gathering.  

That night they snagged seats on the stadium floor so they could dance near the stage. They moved to the beat as singer Tauren Wells performed, then listened intently as ELCA pastors Will Starkweather and Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke of God’s transformative grace. The Gathering House Band closed with a rousing rendition of “This Is Me,” and the mass cast, including Holy Trinity’s youth, filled the stage and floor donning white T-shirts imprinted with “Loved.” 

Leaving the stadium, they were literally jumping with joy. “What really got to me tonight was the energy,” Jordan said. “I thought it was so cool that we could be up close.” 

Gonzales led them to a quiet spot outside for Bible study, where they sat in a circle and discussed the day’s theme, “God’s grace changes everything.” 

Will Behler, 15, was astonished by Starkweather’s story. “Rev. Will overcame one of the most adverse things … he kept cutting himself every time something bad happened,” he said. “Even though a pastor told him he was going to hell, he was able to overcome that.” 

Lewis Miller, 15, agreed, adding, “After [Starkweather] stopped going to church and dropped out of college, he went to a new church. His new pastor said four words that completely changed everything for him.” 

Those words: “There’s grace for that.” 

Peter Olaitan, 18, found comfort in Bolz-Weber’s message. “She said that everything is going to get better after high school, whatever you’re going through—it’s fine,” he said.   

Bolz-Weber helped Michael understand the depths of God’s love. “Nadia said even haters get God’s grace,” he said. “God gave me grace. Out of the thankfulness of my heart, I can use God’s grace and give it to others.” 

As their conversation concluded, Gonzales told the youth: “One of the things I think about when I go to the Gathering is that you guys are the future of the church. Grace to change isn’t with adults—it’s with you. You have the power to make changes.”  

Saturday: God’s hope changes everything 

The youth had a little free time this morning, so they cooled off from the heat in their hotel pool. After a birthday lunch for Madison Ashley, 15, they joined others from the Delaware-Maryland Synod for Synod Day. 

This programming track gives youth the chance to meet and worship alongside peers from their geographic region. A time of community, Synod Day aims to foster in youth a deep sense of belonging in the wider church.  

Youth from the Delaware-Maryland Synod participated in icebreaker activities; sang and danced; learned about the ELCA; and heard a message from William J. Gohl Jr., their synod bishop. Gohl said there’s power in coming together as a synod and in inviting others to church. For Will, meeting their bishop was “really, really cool.” Jenna Kreh, 14, liked meeting other youth in her synod.  

Later they witnessed their final Mass Gathering, hearing from speakers who covered heavy issues—gun violence, racism, migration, addiction, hunger, rape, LGBTQ rights—and highlighted times they’d witnessed how “God’s hope changes everything.”  

The group was spellbound by an exhilarating concert from Tenth Avenue North. During the final slow song, they waved their smartphone flashlights in the air, a powerful visual reminder of God’s relentless hope. “No matter how dark everything gets, there’s always light,” Samantha said.   

Sunday: Jesus changes everything 

At last it was Sunday and the group made their final pilgrimage to NRG Stadium for morning worship. They watched from floor seats as a triumphant processional of worship leaders approached the cross. The Gathering House Band provided stirring music, and Eaton preached on Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman who sought healing from Jesus. “Here is the wonderful news,” Eaton said. “When it looks impossible, remember most of all that Jesus has changed everything.” 

Offerings were collected to support Prison Congregations of America Inc., global ministries and the Gulf Coast Synod. Thousands of Lutherans received communion at stations across the stadium. As Holy Trinity’s youth waited for communion to end, they linked arms, swayed and sang, “My soul will rest in Your embrace. I am Yours and You are mine.” 

After worship the 2021 Gathering site was revealed as Minneapolis—the stadium erupted in cheers.  

During a late lunch, the group reflected on the week and the day’s theme, “Jesus changes everything.” 

The Gathering inspired Peter to be less judgmental and “to try and better understand where others are coming from.” As he heard from speakers and musicians, he realized that “no matter what you’re going through, if you put your faith in God, God is gonna make a way for you when it seems there is no way.” 

Jenna loved dancing with her youth group friends and wished some of her other friends who are struggling with depression could have heard the speakers. “It changes everything to be Christian and know Jesus,” she said. “It changes the way we think and act and our compassion toward others.” Going forward she hopes to be more welcoming and invite others to church.  

Miller’s highlight was watching the group, including her son Lewis, express their joy through music, dance and creative experiences. For her, the Gathering’s theme hit close to home. “We’re going through a health crisis in our family,” she said, and the week reminded her that “Jesus is always present” amid our suffering and challenges. 

After the Gathering, Alicia has a firm stance on LGBTQ issues. “No one at church ever talks about it; I didn’t know what to think,” she said. “God is for everyone. Now I can finally say this is what I believe in and this is what my church believes in, and I can represent the church in a positive way.” 

Gonzales reveled in seeing the youth internalize messages they had heard during the week. She said the Gathering affirmed her belief that “everybody’s welcome, we all belong, we all have a place, and there’s a lot of work to do in Jesus’ name.”    

To see Holy Trinity youth’s daily posts on the Gathering, find them on Instagram: @_htlcyouth_

Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago and author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years (Morehouse Publishing, March 2023). Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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