In the late evening hours of June 25, two liturgical processions set out from opposite ends of the campus of Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with nearly 1,100 people heading to the closing worship service of the 2011 Episcopal Youth Event (EYE).
One group, nearly 700 strong, came from EpiscOlympics, a series of team contests — relays and games — each with an Episcopal theme. They chanted as they walked, accompanied by crude percussion instruments made of scrap materials from the construction site of a Habitat for Humanity house, which participants at EYE helped to build on the Bethel campus.
The other procession was made up of two delegates from each diocese and 12 bishops. They came from the Habitat house, where they had written prayers on the inside, unfinished walls for the recipient family and watched Bishop of Minnesota Brian Prior bless the house, standing on the roof, dressed in full episcopal regalia.
The processions met at Benson Great Hall, the very room where the Episcopal Youth Event had opened on June 23 with a challenge from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to use the time at EYE to become empowered for service and to "get connected and heal the world." What took place in between were three long days of learning, prayer, worship and intentional Christian community that established new friendships across the vast geography that makes up the Episcopal Church.
For three solid days — from early morning to late night — 730 Episcopal youth, supported by more than 300 adult advisors and 50 bishops, were immersed in a comprehensive program designed to enrich and empower the next generation of leaders in the Episcopal Church. More than 50 workshops shared knowledge, stories and skills on subjects such as prayer and spirituality, effective Bible study, youth ministry and mission trip planning. Presenters included church leaders like Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton; the Rev. Angela Ifill, Episcopal Church black ministries officer; the Rev. Winfred Vergara, Episcopal Church Asian American ministries officer; and the Rev. Bob Honeychurch, Episcopal Church officer for congregational vitality.
Two daily plenary sessions presented keynote speakers that included Sutton, Rodger Nishioka of Columbia Theological Seminary, Episcopal missionary Cameron Graham Vivanco and the Rev. Luke Fodor, Episcopal Relief & Development's network coordinator.
Fodor challenged the participants to "reframe the way we think about mission and our role in it," suggesting it "is not possible for us to do mission" but that rather "mission is something that God does through us. God is the missional agent in this world."
"My brothers and sisters, fear not. We all fall short of the glory of God, but God always works through us. Mission is not about us, but is about God and the others we meet when God is using us to build the Reign of God," he said. "When we begin to think about mission in this way, mission becomes less and less about us. As we shed our baggage of fear, anxiety and the silent lies that suggest we don't matter, then mission becomes more and more about God and our fellow humans."
The final plenary session — the closing Eucharist — was clearly an emotional time for many. With arms locked about friends old and new, cheers and applause for presenters and planning team members as they appeared in a slide show recounting the past three days, and literal dancing in the aisles, participants of the 2011 Episcopal Youth Event received one final call to mission.
Explaining that lay persons, like bishops, priests and deacons, are "the ministers of the church" (Book of Common Prayer, page 855), Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies, invited participants to "jump into the waters of baptism." [A video of Anderson's address is available here.]
"We are the baptized. And the true claim of baptism, as our courageous ancestor JennieWylie Kellerman said, 'is to wade in the water and be immersed in our Lord's perverse ethic of vulnerability and gain through loss.'"
"He was not passive. Jesus troubled the waters. That's our job if we are to follow Jesus. Our job is to upset any status quo that stands in the way of peace and justice, to question and do something about anything that stands in the way of a reconciled world," said Anderson. "That's why we are committed to mission. It's our job to turn this world upside down; to turn over the tables; to look outside ourselves with fresh eyes and then help others see the kingdom of God."
Saying that we have "ancestors who came before us, who have forged [a] path of courage before us," images of the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Jonathan Daniels and Bishop Jim Kelsey were displayed on an overhead screen. Finally, as a video clip of the "cowardly lion from the 'Wizard of Oz,' who learned that he had courage all along" played in the background, Anderson invited the EYE participants to "embrace courage, take off your seatbelts, put on you bungee cord and jump into your life with Jesus."
As worship ends, service begins
While the closing Eucharist formally concluded the gathering, the EYE experience continued with more than half of the youth participants set to engage in Three Days of Mission.
Wendy Johnson, missioner for communications for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, who spent a full year arranging service opportunities, said the idea behind Three Days of Mission was "to give everyone at EYE the opportunity, after three days of workshops learning about mission, to actually do mission."
Johnson said that some would stay in Minnesota and some would return to their homes dioceses to do mission work. More than 200 youth were set to serve in Minnesota. The youth from the Diocese of Hawaii traveled to far Northern Minnesota, to Ely, to do environmental education. The group from New Jersey was headed to rural Brainerd, to do an "indigenous peoples tour" to follow the path of the Ojibwe in Minnesota. Groups from the dioceses of Utah, Western Louisiana, Ohio and Iowa remained in the Twin Cities metropolitan area to work with various charities, including Second Harvest Food Shelf and the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches "Paint-a-Thon."
A transformative experience with an impact on the church
Bronwyn Clark Skov, youth ministries officer for the Episcopal Church, said in May that EYE was being planned to be a "transformative experience of worship, community and mission."
"What will be most significant and transformative is that for most it will be the first time to see so many other young Episcopalians their age together in the same place," she said. "And in the midst of a huge gathering, close friendships will be made in small groups."
That's just what happened to Connor Durgin from the Diocese of Maine, who was one of the percussionists in the procession to the closing worship service.
"Where I come from there is not a lot of youth, especially in my own church, which is really separated from everywhere else. So to see lots of kids, just like us, interested in the same things is just amazing. You can just find so much connection."
Two youth participants from the Diocese of Puerto Rico had the same experience.
Stacy Medina said "it's been a really big experience and I want to take it home."
"I'm going to take a big step in Puerto Rico. I'm going to make a big change in my church. I want to have more youth and I want to do more mission. I've learned a lot here about why we don't see a lot of young people in church and now I know what I can do to change that."
Jose Rivera said "this has been a great, great experience for me and everyone and everything has been so helpful." He said he learned about working with other cultures to "come together with one goal."
"The goal is to change the world," he said.
The Rev. Canon Anthony Guillén, program officer for Latino/Hispanic Ministry for the Episcopal Church, who worked closely with EYE participants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, said the EYE experience is bound to have an impact on the church.
"A number of these students are phenomenal leaders — they are just gifted. It's not like they needed EYE to do their ministry, but this has given them a connection to a lot of people. They want to be part of the larger church. They have spread out and made new friends and feel like they are part of a bigger family. This is going to make them more effective yet."
"I fully expect some of them to be part of the design team for the next EYE," he said.