By Melissa Minieri, Synod Office Manager
This was written the day after she arrived home from the National Youth Gathering in New Orleans
Arriving in New Orleans on Sunday morning I still wasn’t totally sure what I was getting myself into. I saw the numbers on paper…..12,000 people per day on service projects, around 50 buses (filled with 45 people) launched 5 times per day for 3 days, around 250 Servant Companions to lead the groups on the projects, around 400 different projects all over the New Orleans area, 1 million books to be distributed. They were all just numbers though. Numbers I could not translate to what it would actually look like….
I think I first started to get a grasp of what these numbers meant on Monday evening. Sunday and Monday we had been hunting around the vast Superdome for our supplies and books that all needed to be setup and distributed before the youth began arriving. The first load of books came on a pallet to our staging area and we were ready to get them sorted quickly, because we knew we only had two days to get them to their project sites for all the book festivals and literacy camps that were happening. Many of the books were delivered to the sites, but about 20 sites could not hold the books in advance (or were last minute locations) so we had to deliver them right before. We started opening the boxes and thinking of how we would sort them and the pallets of books just kept coming….and coming…and coming…. All of a sudden our staging area, behind the stands of the Superdome, were filled with pallets of books! It was about 5:00pm and I knew we had to finish filling these orders tonight. I had a moment then thinking we are never going to finish this! We are going to be up all night and even then, I don’t know if we can finish it.
After my moment of panic, I looked up, and God showed me about a dozen willing people. They looked at the piles and they said “How can we help?” I never had to convince them the importance of getting these books packed up tonight so they could get in the hands of children all over the city. I never had to encourage them that this may be hard work and a long night. They just looked at me and said “Tell me what to do.” So I just started dividing up tasks and they set into action. We were opening boxes, sorting them into piles, and then filling orders, packing them up, re-taping the boxes, and labeling them for their destination. Only four hours later….FOUR HOURS –there were 20 neat piles labeled and ready to be delivered. I couldn’t believe it. Sorry God for my unbelief. I will not doubt again. We can do this. I felt my faith bolstered and ready to take on this week. Bring it on! And God did……..
The next two days were met with new challenges coordinating three vans to deliver the books and get them to their destinations. Hundreds of bags of supplies for each literacy camp and festival were put together and then organized so that they could get there with the Servant Companions on the day of their service. But for every challenge a solution presented itself. And we all pressed on.
Wednesday night the youth began to filter into the Superdome for opening worship and the energy in the building was palpably rising. You could feel it in the air. As opening worship began, I walked into the stadium and the energy was amazing! I couldn’t believe it was time for this to all happen. After months of planning for this, and hearing about it, I couldn’t believe it was now! Then it hit me….I looked at all the people in the stadium, I mentally divided them into thirds and realized that that was how many people we were sending on service/learning projects tomorrow. All of a sudden the numbers became REAL! And I mean really REAL. The math started going through my head. All the possibilities of what could go wrong started whizzing through my mind. I was terrified and excited all at the same time. What a difference these people could make in the city! Think of the ripples this could create as they take their experiences home. Think of the potential! …..think of the potential for problems….. My mind was all over the place. I could barely sleep that night. Had we really prepared for this? Did we get the bags all labeled right? Do we understand the database enough to answer questions that will call in? What did we miss in our planning? It is all going to WORK? What if…what if…what if….
Thursday morning was the first day for Practice Justice projects. As we drove to the Superdome at 5:30am we saw some of the orange t-shirted people walking towards the dome for their Practice Justice Day that would soon be released in masses into the city. We got to the office and braced ourselves not knowing what to expect. 6:00 am – the Servant Companion office calls us and tells me they are missing several release forms for their projects. No problem, we make copies. I run them down there. I got down there and everyone is missing their forms. Many more trips of running around getting people the right forms and thinking the whole time about how we can get ahead of this problem. We started to look at what the next launches would need as far as forms and brought stacks down, but then we realized that adult leaders were missing their forms for the whole group. I can’t tell you how many times I ran the dome that morning. The security in the halls just smiled and said “there she goes again”. The first launch heads out. A huge bottle-neck of people picking up lunches puts us behind schedule. Adapt, adjust, it finally gets flowing by the 3rd launch. Phones start ringing. There are no dumpsters at a cleanup project that has 10 bus loads of people. Many more phone calls trying to get it fixed. It’s not happening. I’m still running back and forth. In my head, we are crashing. We are going down. My fears are confirmed. This is not possible. What have I gotten into? This is only the 2nd launch of 15!
In hearing the stories from the group who worked the Practice Justice days in 2009 I remembered that they continued to say “Fly through the crash. You never know, you just may land it.” So we continued to fly through the crash and the day did get a little better. I hardly remember it though. It was all fuzz. After our first day, we saw several ways we could improve our system. We made several adjustments and were actually optimistic about Friday and Saturday going better.
Friday was going so much better at first. We were thrilled! Then the rain started. And the phones started ringing. And ringing, and ringing. Fly through the crash…. It’s interesting how the days before this prepared me for Friday. There was nothing we could do about the rain, so I just started to enjoy the excitement. I think the rest of my team thinks I’m crazy for thinking this because I don’t think many of them were having fun. But to see this team making things work despite the flooding in the city, rain washing out several projects it looked like the epitome of God at work to me. Half the team was working out a plan to get as many people into the city on projects as possible. Half of the team was collecting information from the many phone calls coming in to get a handle on what was going on in the city. Despite the severe weather, (which included masses of soaked people) I would guess that almost 50% of the projects went ahead as scheduled and another 25% of the projects were redirected to learning projects that were created that day as the team was continuing to fly through the crash.
Saturday morning, as we all headed to the dome for our final day of Practice Justice, the team was visibly tired. We were scrambling to be better prepared for rain since the potential still existed and several projects were cancelled anyways because of the flooding from the previous day. The rain held off though. We had a variety of different kinds of problems to solve this day, but we were all getting good at knocking them out by this time.
But nothing could top the stories that started to roll in of the service that was going on in the city. We got pictures of the books we had packed up being passed out at the local malls…pictures of literacy camps where youth were reading the kid’s new books to them….reports that the dumpsters had finally arrived in the lower 9th ward and were completely filled….letters to President Obama written by kids of New Orleans that would break your heart….schools being painted….and even more moving were the relationships that were forming.
One church that hosted a literacy festival said “We need to do this every year”. The pastor said “We are a small church, with few resources, so I don’t know how we would get the finances for the books, but we have to make this happen. This is going to make such an impact on our community. It brings so much hope.” Another pastor who had traveled to New Orleans with his youth said, “We will partner with you. We will make sure you get those books.” Students who were on these projects started to realize, “We can do this in our own cities”. You could almost feel the ripples starting to happen. I pray this spark stays with everyone who felt it this past week. I pray they learned that we all can play a part in making a difference in our own communities.
I got home last night from all this. My mind is still spinning, thinking… what does this all mean? I learned so many life lessons during these last few days that I want to take time to digest them all. I learned so much about leadership, teamwork, and relationships. It will probably not all sink in for several weeks. But two things keep spinning through my mind….
One, the power of faith. Before the Gathering in 2009, Peggy Hahn (assistant to the bishop) had a new dream for the Gathering. The Youth Gathering was to be held in her home city and she wondered if it was possible to have EVERYONE that came to the gathering go on a service project. Before 2009 the service part was an optional experience and usually had around 2,000 people per day on service projects. So going from 2,000 to 12,000 per day was a big game changer. I keep wondering what it must feel like to have God place something this huge on Peggy’s heart and for her to say yes. I think how many times God placed something on my heart and I just rationalized my way out of it, thinking that it was not going to be possible.
Peggy is not the only one who had to take a leap of faith to undertake this kind of project. Everyone taking a leadership role for this event took a leap of faith that this was actually going to work. I remember Sally Ahrens kept saying “There are only a few people that I would fly to the moon with.” She (and the rest of the team) put trust in God working through this team.
Being on this team was different than other teams I have been on though. The main difference, I think, was that God was at the center of it all. This team prayed together and continued to look for where God was moving in all this. There were SO many obstacles and things that could have been huge discouragements, but the team continued to find God. I laugh thinking about our last team meeting in New Orleans in May before the gathering.
There was some kind of event going on in New Orleans, so all the hotels were booked in the city. The only accommodations we could find was a sketchy place that housed people coming for mission projects. Hundreds of beds that, stacked three and four high, were crammed into two rooms. The room was filled with mattresses that should have been thrown away years ago and half of the showers had no hot water. There was about 50 people gathered for this final meeting. I heard no complaints about the accommodations. The team continued to focus on serving this city and making this dream a reality. I want to remember from all this, the power of the faith that it took to make this a reality. I want to deepen my faith and relationship with God so that the next time the Spirit says GO, I have the faith to say “Let’s do this!”
The second thing that has really moved me these last few days has been the power of God’s many hands. So many times in our churches we feel like we are not really making a difference. Does this one food drive, this one donation to the Malaria Campaign, this one time we hosted homeless families at our church REALLY make a difference in our world? The youth gathering gave me the opportunity to see 36,000 people gathered in one place and the difference that they made. Because this was a concentrated effort we got to see the impact. But the truth is, being part of the church, this happens all the time. We just don’t know it. The Sunday that we did a food drive, I can bet that hundreds of other congregations did a food drive as well. We just don’t have the data behind it, but chances are, its happening and together there is no doubt we are making a difference. Each congregation does its small part to bring hope, love, and peace to our world. Seeing all 36,000 people together showed me a SAMPLE of how many people are passionate about making a difference. I pray that each person that left the Youth Gathering yesterday will remember this and bring this vision of the larger church back to their communities. I want to hang on to this vision for myself.
In the many things I learned over this past week I really hope to keep with me these two big things: 1. When the Spirit moves, don’t stop it – go with it! And 2. Every small thing we can do to bring hope, love, and peace DOES make a difference. So listen for God’s voice and then GO!