With hands clapping, bodies swaying and beach balls flying, the singing voices of nearly 1,100 Episcopalians filled Benson Great Hall on the campus of Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, for the opening worship service of the 2011 Episcopal Youth Event (EYE) on June 23. The triennial event — the second-largest gathering in the Episcopal Church — attracted delegations from nearly all dioceses in the United States as well as the Dominican Republic.
Gathered around the theme "Come Together: Intimately Linked in this Harvest Work," 730 high school youth, 310 adults and 50 bishops are spending three days on the Bethel campus, learning together and sharing stories and skills so that, as Bronwyn Clark Skov, officer for youth ministries of the Episcopal Church, said in her welcome, "we might all be enriched and empowered as we go forth from here transformed and eager to fulfill our call as Episcopal Christians in this world."
Nearly two years in the planning
Just the day before, members of the EYE mission planning team, made up of 10 high school youth, supported by 13 adult advisors and assisted by staff members from the Episcopal Church Center in New York, were putting the finishing touches on months of planning and preparations.
"This is literally the day we have been waiting and planning for, for 18 months," said Skov.
She said that a lot of "prayer power" was going into the preparations, and not just from Episcopalians. Just that morning she received an e-mail from the youth ministry leaders of the member denominations of the National Council of Churches of Christ "saying they were praying for EYE."
"The team feels this and we're seeing the Holy Spirit pop up all over the place today," said Skov.
While a hospitality team made up of youth and adults from congregations of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota and a fleet of buses were stationed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport to welcome guests, members of the mission planning team were deployed around the campus attending to last-minute details that included everything from stuffing registration packets to preparing the visual slides for plenary sessions to learning how to maneuver kites and streamers that would be used in processions at worship services.
Riding in the back of a golf cart, being driven from one residence hall to another where she was double checking room assignments, team member Carolyn Downs of the Diocese of Connecticut said, "It's really great seeing everything come to life after two years of work." She also said that the members of the team have "all become very good friends" and the experience has made her feel more connected to the wider church.
"We sometimes think it's only our diocese or our parish, but in reality it's so much more — it's national and global. I have learned to look at the bigger picture of the whole church."
Opening day begins a with a bang ... literally
In her remarks at the opening worship service, Skov described an incident that was news to half the participants — those who got a full night's rest. At 2 a.m. wind toppled a tree near one of the two residence halls puncturing a natural gas line. That sent a burst of natural gas into one of the dorm rooms in Heritage Hall where a small explosion woke its two young male residents. They ran to the lobby to find the entire adult resident team still in a planning meeting. Campus security was summoned, who in turn summoned the first department and Excel Energy. Residents of the dorm were quickly evacuated to nearby Benson Great Hall, where they waited two hours. There was no fire associated with the explosion and no one was injured.
"This is further evidence that God is watching over us," said Skov. "This could have been a disaster. The fact that the adult dormitory team was still awake and all in one place together is nothing short of a miracle. I could not be more proud of them, as well as the Bethel University security staff."
A call to mission
Randall Curtis, an adult member of the mission planning team from the Diocese of Arkansas, said that early discussions between Skov and the provincial youth ministry coordinators of the Episcopal Church identified a desire to rethink the purpose of EYE, make it a shorter event and one that is focused on empowering youth for service.
"We really started from the ground up in re-imagining what EYE should be," said Curtis. "Instead of just being a big event that we all come to, there is a sharp focus on mission and it's all about how we can live out a better Christian response to the world."
Leading off the call to mission was Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who preached at the opening worship service. Speaking to the gathering's theme, she said that "we are all intimately linked with the wider web of creation, with human beings and other parts of creation and we are part of an evolving universe, which God is continually urging to grow and develop and change."
"We're here as the body of Christ, also interconnected with its various parts and with the rest of creation. Our life and health depend on how we care for all those parts. We're here to discover those connections and intimate links, and to discover what's evolving in our midst — what the growing looks like around here."
Jefferts Schori said that as she looks at the church she sees those intimate connections being lived out in service beyond itself.
"Across this church, congregations and dioceses are building partnerships to care for people who've lost their homes to floods and tornadoes, to dig wells in sub-Saharan Africa, or rebuild churches and schools in Haiti. People are looking to see who's hungry or homeless, and doing something about it," she said.
Describing several reminders on her desk that "help me stay connected to a world far bigger that whatever thing I am working on at the moment," the presiding bishop said that the Episcopal Youth Event, itself, is one of them "reminding us who we are, and whose we are and why we are here."
"We are literally re-membered here, put back together as the body of Christ in this place. We remember what Jesus asked of us, to love each other as he loves us, and to break bread as a reminder. We break open the word of God together, to remind us of possibilities we haven't yet discovered, to remember that God loves all life into existence, and that we share in that creative work, as the hands and feet and hearts of Christ in this world," said Jefferts Schori.
"Find reminders and be reminders! Get connected, and heal the world!"
A home for the Johnsons
Participants at the Episcopal Youth Event will find an immediate opportunity to engage in mission — that healing of the world. One unique component of the 2011 EYE — a historical first — is the building of a house from the ground up. In collaboration with volunteers from Habitat for Humanity, teams of Episcopal youth will work throughout the gathering to construct a house on the Bethel campus that will eventually be moved to Princeton, Minnesota, and occupied by Jeannette Johnson, a single mother and her two teenage daughters.
Another historical aspect is the fact that the house will be the first "net-zero" home constructed by Habitat for Humanity. Designed by architecture and engineering students at the University of Minnesota's College of Design, the structure will produce as much energy as it consumes.
"This is a remarkable example of what is possible with some creative ideas, appropriate partners who can demonstrate what the mission needs are and some willing labor," said the presiding bishop as she visited the build site on June 22.
"This is not only an opportunity for the young people who are working on this house to learn about the needs of those who don't have adequate shelter, but the connections that exist between how we live in a house and the rest of the world: climate change, the ability of people in Africa to have water, and the pollution in our atmosphere. All of those are connected and this is a great opportunity for everybody to get a sense of those connections and that how we live has an impact on everything else," she said.
Two of the youth members of the EYE mission planning team — Brooks and Gage — share the name Prior. Their father is the Rt. Rev. Brian N. Prior, bishop of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, who has participated in the Episcopal Youth Event since it was created by the General Convention in 1982. He says it has transformed lives and given the church generations of leaders.
"It's been wonderful to experience EYE for so long because even already I've seen generations of leaders emerge: great youth ministers who began as young people attending EYE and clergy that are here today because of their experience at this gathering. So, I'm very excited to be a part of EYE again and filled with the possibilities of where some of these young people will be three, six, nine years from now because of the transformational experience they will have this week at EYE."
And Bishop Prior added that, especially because of his long involvement with EYE, he is very pleased to welcome the event to Minnesota.
"As one of the great historical dioceses of the Episcopal Church that is now reclaiming its missional heritage, to have all these young people here engaging God's mission is a blessing for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota this summer."
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