We continue to give thanks for the love and faithfulness of James Norman (Messiah Lutheran) and Megan Bower (All Souls Episcopal) after serving in Detroit during the ELCA’s 2015 National Youth Gathering, “Rise Up!” During their week with over 30,000 other Lutheran youth from across the United States, they worshiped God, heard inspiring speakers, participated in meaningful service, and attended concerts from leading Christian contemporary artists. They also made many new friends as they experienced educational and social events.
As Lutherans descended on the city, Detroit residents didn’t know what to make of it at first. Who were all these young people in bright orange and other neon colored shirts? They were polite and respectful…even helpful. They were singing joyfully and proclaiming Christ’s love loudly through word and deed. A news article seemed to lament that the downtown area might seem like Disneyland for a few days. Our youth were called by one social media pundit “insufferably cheerful.” Another person said online that it looked as if a Skittles factory exploded, and a new Twitter hashtag was born (#SkittlesExplosion) to go along with the event’s #RiseUpELCA.
Yet as our youth got to work making friends amongst themselves and the community, helped local area nonprofits, and brought life and joy to a struggling economy and distressed community, attitudes quickly changed. Dare I say that both we and the city changed? The positive energy was palpable as love was made concrete. The youth discovered a welcoming city far from dead. The city itself responded in hospitality, joy and hope.
Social media captured many of the insights learned as well as the opening hearts. One resident was amazed at all the youth had done. They cleaned her neighborhood and made murals to help board up empty houses while providing beauty as well. She said what they had done “has physically, mentally, & spiritually made an impact.” Another posted, “Have not seen this many smiling faces in 1 place since well… ever! Thanks for visiting Detroit, Ya’ll come back now , Ya hear…” An impoverished, disabled resident marveled at the changes she witnessed on her street and the friendliness of all the youth. She said it was a highlight of her day to watch the youth at work and wave to them as they came and went each day.
The most wonderful change came through personal interaction. High fives and hellos poured down the Detroit streets. Residents would shout out their welcome and thanks. Cries of “Thank you, Lutherans! Thank you for coming here!” and “God bless you!” rose up like amens at an energetic Sunday morning worship. One taxi driver saw our group working hard cleaning a neighborhood on a mid-90 degree day with high humidity. Without being asked, he bought cold water for all and shared in friendly conversation as well. Choking up a bit, he said we were working on his grandparents’ old street. It brought back his boyhood memories as well as hope for a future in Detroit.
People would say over and over again, “Please share the good news about Detroit back home,” and “Say nice things about our city.” Honestly, a number of our 30,000 attendees expected Detroit to be only a filthy, crime-ridden city. Some parents were afraid (or at least a bit concerned) to let their youth go there. Yet, we all discovered much more in that city: a people rising up and reinventing their home, a hospitable and gracious welcome, yes, even new community.
For as the week wore on, race, class and geographical origin mattered less and less. We were rising up as one together and meeting the Risen Christ already in Detroit and at work. That’s the best news about Detroit. We didn’t come to save the city. Jesus does the saving, and we visitors and city residents were now the joint beneficiaries of his blessing.
To members of my congregation, I say thank you for supporting our All Souls/Messiah youth who attended. In three years, we might have more heading to Houston for the next announced Gathering. Until then, ask James and Megan to share their experience, faith and hope with you. They are part of this larger story, but have their own unique story to tell. Better yet, let’s rise up together, looking for the Risen Christ here in Hanover County, and join in his mission. Young or old, that’s what we’ve been called and sent here to do.
This post originally appeared as a pastoral letter in Messiah Lutheran‘s newsletter, The Messenger (August 2015).
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.