Thirty thousand teenagers! Thirty thousand of them! And yet it's not just about how many; it's where they're going. You see, the ELCA Youth Gathering has been riling up tens of thousands of high schoolers every three years for the last few decades, but they've gone to places like Dallas, San Antonio, Atlanta, and New Orleans. It was almost like a vacation to go to these picturesque big American cities, and in doing so have a great time with friends while doing some worship and Bible study for good Christian measure. However, three years ago while the event was held in New Orleans, the higher up's in the ELCA made a pivotal decision: that they would carry on the emphasis of service projects that was started there in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina; except next time they would go north, far, farther north than they ever had before, to Detroit.
Now, let's be honest, in the grand scheme of the American culture, Detroit is not held in the same regard as the Dallas's and San Antiono's and the New Orleans' of this country. Instead, our biggest city in the state of Michigan is thought to be corrupt to the point of complete bankruptcy, industries taking advantage of the system to the tune of billions of dollars in government bailouts, police and firefighters and EMS crews stretched to the limit for a place that's so massive in space but immensely dwindling in population, not to mention the usual conclusion with any uncertain urban area: that's it overrun by drugs and violence.
So it's safe to say when any American wants to take a summer vacation anywhere in this amazing country of ours, Detroit is nowhere near the top of the list. Nevertheless, thirty thousand teenagers are going in. Now perhaps they're naïve. Maybe they're too young to understand. It's possible they don't watch the news. But they don't seem to care what the supposedly more knowledgeable and more culturally-aware adults have to say. They're going in, into Detroit, with a passion that we cannot possibly understand or fully appreciate.
Perhaps God is telling us something through them. Maybe God is trying to prophesy through them this weekend, not only to those in Detroit, but to us, who are too scared, too stubborn, too much lack of concern about that other world of poverty. It's possible God is and will be as much at work in the six of our youth and the other tens of thousands of high schoolers as God was in Amos long, long ago, when the prophet had to let the higher up's know that something had to be done: that God could not stand to see people suffer through hunger and homelessness. So God sent a measly 'ole herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees to set the stage for raising the downtrodden up from the depths of society.
Nevertheless, we have our usual skeptical responses: perhaps those in Detroit did it to themselves. Maybe there's a reason why thousands of houses are boarded up across the city. It's possible they wasted their money and time on drugs and buying expensive phones and televisions instead of food and medicine for their family.
And yet if there are any first-hand experts on stereotypes of whole groups of people and even entire cities they are the teenagers, who have to hear it from the supposedly more knowledgeable and more culturally-aware adults that all teens are the same: they're all bullies, they all listen to bad music, they all drink and do drugs, they're the reason why America is so corrupt.
But thankfully behind the thirty thousand of them going to Detroit this week are even more adults who don't go along with those completely demeaning stereotypes of young people, and instead fully believe in them with all their heart. Thirty thousand sets of parents, hundreds of congregations, hundreds of thousands of their sisters and brothers in Christ, who believe in them to the point of supporting them with their money and prayers to get them to Detroit. Churches are so convinced that they will pay for air and bus-fare, registration fees, and food that could end up costing tens of thousands of dollars.
They would not be going without you either: from the Christmas cookies and Super Bowl subs here at St. John's, to the special fund we were blessed with when our sister congregation, St. Luke's closed down years ago. Even in the midst of that emotionally-charged time of a beloved congregation coming to an end, they were so convinced in what youth have to offer to this world, that they set aside what little they had left just for them, for ministries just like what will happen this week.
It is most certainly God at work in all of you, to help you believe in our youth all the more, that God is going to send them into Detroit, to prophesy with just as much Holy Spirit as Amos long ago. Prophesy that stereotypes will not define whole groups of people and entire cities. Prophesy that this God is for everyone. Prophesy that we can by no means limit the overwhelming mercy of this almighty God. Prophesy that this love of God cannot stay in church buildings, but it must be set free into the world, even into the neighborhoods we do everything to avoid. And ultimately prophesy that what they will do this week is not to save Detroit, not bring the Gospel to them, because Jesus has already saved them. God is already there. All we are about to do is simply join in the Resurrection that has already started in that still precious city in the eyes of God. And so we pray God's blessings on them all this week as the love of God that saves us all pours out on the entire city of Detroit and beyond. Thanks be to God for the sacred privilege to be part of this life-defining ministry now and forevermore! Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Nan Dehnke, Pastor
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon