Nicole Hucks, left, and Brittany Barnes, both of Suffolk Va., make their way up to the University of Tennessee dorms on Thursday. Both teenagers attend Chapel Grove UCC in Windsor, Va., and participated in the National Youth Event held in Knoxville July 22-26. Cathy Clarke photo.
Embrace, enlighten, encourage and empower—those were the words used to sum up the "e-attitude" of some 3,800 youth and adults who attended the UCC's quadrennial National Youth Event, July 22-26 in Knoxville, Tenn. From every region of the United States and Puerto Rico, participants gathered for a four-day whirlwind extravaganza to celebrate the important role of youth in the life of the UCC. A record turnout helped make NYE 2004 the UCC's largest national gathering ever, many are saying.
Inspirational worship services, educational workshops and motivational speakers left participants feeling embraced by a church that loves them, enlightened about what's going on in the world, encouraged that we're all in it together and empowered to make a difference.
"Everyone's on common ground before you even say your name," explained Dana Kavitski of Faith UCC in Hazelton, Pa., "because you're all there for the same reason."
The University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus proved to be a perfect venue, with its large arena and newly remodeled aquatic center. The university center offered bowling, movies, game rooms, after-hour coffee houses and a make-shift, meditative labyrinth made of non-perishable food items.
Ken Medema, an inspirational speaker and musician who has been blind since birth, offered overflowing enthusiasm while leading NYE's daily worship services. Medema's transparent love for music, young people and the holy frequently moved the youth to respond by clapping and singing along, or marching their way around the arena.
The sight of everyone together in worship put a smile on the face of Justin Demko, a member of Faith UCC in Allentown, Pa. "This event is about more than just meeting people," he said, "it's about feeling more compassionate about God and Jesus."
During NYE's opening address, Marcus Lewis, a member of the Ho-Chunk Indian nation and a representative of the UCC's Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries, encouraged the youth to cling to what matters most.
"When the world seems like it's closing in on you, hold tight to your faith. Hold tight to the beliefs you have, hold tight to your family, to your friends and most importantly to your God," Lewis said. "Go out and change the world with the abilities that lie within you and do not be afraid to take the lead."
Twenty-one-year-old Craig Kielburger, chair of "Free the Children"—an international children's rights advocacy organization he founded at age 12 when he became impassioned about the plight of child laborers around the world—challenged the youth to use their Godgiven gifts to take action and change the world, starting right now.
"Some people think you have to wait for a booming voice from the sky," Kielburger said, "but God calls you every day, every time you open the newspaper and read about suffering."
Meaghan Caulfield from First Parish Congregational UCC in Yarmouth, Maine, said she related best to the daily bible studies led by Valerie Tutson, a storyteller from Providence, R.I., who shared scripture using first-person accounts, followed by parallel modern-day versions. Tutson's bright, colorful outfits and animated voice brought life to NYE's morning sessions, which proved especially difficult for some to attend after repeated nights of little sleep.
No less than 130 workshops—ranging from the more-serious "Seven Steps to Social Justice" to the more-foolhardy "Discover the Clown in You"—were held all over UT's expansive campus, sometimes making for quite a hike in the sweltering heat. But it was worth the effort. Some workshops, such as "Finding the Gospel in Harry Potter," were presented to packed audiences with standing room only.
"It's really fun meeting new people and learning about their interests," said Chris Waldon of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Lansing, Mich. Elsbeth Stuef of Riverside Community UCC in Hood River, Ore., and a member of the NYE choir, said, "People here are open to new ideas. No matter who you are, you're going to feel welcome. I think this is because everyone who's here wants to be here, and we all work together."
On the last day, three young adult leaders—Eric C. Smith, Jessica Leischner and Ashely Ekwem Thorpe—each took turns speaking about why the youth were leaders of today, not just of the future. They called on them to return home and accept leadership positions in the church, work for justice, register to vote, step outside their comfort zones and speak up about the issues that are important to them.
"None of us alone is the future of the UCC," Smith said. "If we want to live in to the future together, we all need to be present."
Megan Hoelle, a member of Lake Oswego UCC in Oregon, is an intern with the UCC's Office of General Ministries in Cleveland.