Pittsburgh 2011 youth gathering
Mountain States youth pastors arrange joint bus tripby Andrew Clouse, associate pastor for youth, Albuquerque (N.M.) Mennonite Church
When Natalie Anderson of Albuquerque, N.M., attends the opening worship session at Pittsburgh 2011 this summer, it will be the first time she's ever been in a room with more than 200 Mennonites.
Natalie, a 14-year-old member of the Albuquerque Mennonite Church youth group, is one of nearly 40 youth from the Mountain States Mennonite Conference who will spend 27 hours on a charter bus to Pittsburgh for the biennial youth gathering.
When I asked Natalie why she signed up for the trip, she said, "I want to meet some other Mennonite youth from other churches because I feel isolated here."
This sentiment is nothing new for youth from this area conference, which consists of a few small, scattered congregations in New Mexico, Texas and Colorado. Churches here are not only spread out but are far from the Mennonite "hubs." Albuquerque is 300 miles closer to Mexico City than to Pittsburgh.
As a result of this isolation, youth like Natalie aren't even sure what being Mennonite means, or how to address the confused questions that pop up when she tells friends that she is Mennonite.
"We're the only Mennonite church in Albuquerque, so when I talk to my friends about it, they don't know what I’m talking about,” she said. 'They're like, 'What? What is that?' And then some of my friends thought that Mennonites were old fashioned and wear things on their heads. And another one thought I said 'men in tights.'"
Convention may be the only time many of these youth experience the sense of belonging that comes from worshiping with thousands of other youth who also identify as Mennonite. If they do not have the opportunity to connect with the Mennonite Church during their formative high school years, they may never get the chance.
With these realities in mind, the four paid youth pastors in our conference brainstormed how we could turn convention into an extended experience that would provide space for the youth in our conference to form deep bonds with each other and the broader church. The idea of a cross-country bus trip was born.
"We're trying to create a significant amount of time and captured space where our youth can get to know each other and form a stronger identity with the conference," says Tory Doerksen, pastor for child and youth faith formation at First Mennonite Church in Denver. "We want them to know they are not alone as Colorado Anabaptist/Mennonite Christians."
Michael Martin, youth pastor at Beth-El Mennonite Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., agrees: "Riding on a bus for 30 hours with other youth helps develop relational skills, expand a youth’s network and helps make a better connection to MC USA as a whole."
The trip will not be without challenges. From Albuquerque, for example, we will need to spend a day on each end of the trip commuting to and from our launching point in Denver, meaning we will be gone a total of 11 days—a demanding time commitment for over-involved youth and sponsors.
Another challenge is cost. We expect to spend at least $1,000 per participant for travel, food, hotel and registration fees. Our small youth group will need to raise nearly $7,000, and First Mennonite in Denver will have to pull in close to $15,000. This translates into hours of barbecues, service auctions, chili cook-offs and dinner theaters.
We decided that the chance to connect our youth to one another, challenging speakers and a new part of the country was worth the expense. As youth pastors, we pray that the week-and-a-half of being squeezed on a bus and run ragged in Pittsburgh will result in changed lives and a deeper faith.
"I hope they experience a little bit of discomfort in order to grow," Martin says. "Being on a bus might give a literal meaning to that."
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