When you first see the youth gathered for last week's regional youth event, they look like a typical group of midwestern high school students. All shapes, sizes, ethnic backgrounds, abilities, interests, and personalities. Dancers, musicians, theatre students, trekkies, athletes, teens who are popular in their school and those who are not, all came together to participate in a church youth event with other teens from Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.
Here's the thing: Everyone fit in here. Ask any of the youth and they will tell you how easy it is to make friends at these events. "People don't judge me here like they do at school." It is a safe place for teens to be themselves. At their age, this is huge. Someone likes me for who I really am, that person I don't share with the rest of the world unless I feel very safe.
In addition, youth and adults attend workshops on what youth can do to prevent HIV, what it means to be a progressive Christian, how to be a straight ally, wondering if God tweets, and many others. They learned about immigration issues and environmental justice. And at the end of a particularly intense day, they did what more adults should do. They hit the slip n' slide, play volleyball, throw water balloons, and have duels with inflatable swords for hours with kindergarten rules.
Nicole Havelka and I laughed that in the midst of all the heavy topics of discussion, probably no other topic had as much discussion as who calls it "pop" and who calls it "soda."
These can be mountain top experiences for many of these youth and the return to reality can be difficult. Making friends is very easy at events like these and saying goodbye to return to what may or not be a positive situation at home can be difficult. But keeping in touch with new friends is very easy these days. All the way home, the youth in my car slept and texted those friends.
Experiences like these are intense in many ways, spiritually, intellectually, and sometimes physically. Every person I had a chance to visit with was amazing. My dear friend Elizabeth Dilley is very good about stating that the youth of the church are not just the future of the church, they are the present. I reminded them that they are not leaders at some other time, but they are leaders now and they are needed and wanted. My hope is that our churches will see it that way, too, and be open to the ways in which the spirit moves them.