National Youth Convention challenges students to mirror Jesus
by Connie Faber
Water was essential at the 2011 National Youth Convention (NYC) held April 16-19 in San Antonio, Texas. NYC participants lived for four days along the historic River Walk, a network of walkways one story beneath approximately five miles of downtown San Antonio. And the setting reinforced the San Antonio 2011 (SA2011) theme: “Flood” taken from Amos 5:24, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream!”
While the River Walk was built in part to control flooding, SA2011 organizers intended participants’ faith to reach flood stage. “This weekend we want to move your faith from your head where you know it, to your heart where you love it, to your hands where you do it,” said codirector Wendell Loewen in Saturday’s opening General Session.
Key elements of the convention schedule were designed to create the “head, heart, hands” flow. Organizers intended the General Sessions—featuring worship band Stories in Braille and speakers Paula Simpon-Parry and Shane Claiborne—to provide a biblical foundation for compassion, love and justice. The Sunday morning workshops and seminars were intended to inspire student’s hearts for ministry and Monday’s City Search and volunteer assignments provided practical opportunities to serve.
“FLOOD was not just a concept on a brochure,” says codirector Tim Neufeld. “The idea that God’s love, justice and righteousness can flood each of our hearts and then flow into the world around us was prominent in every meeting, seminar and ministry opportunity. Amos 5:24 guided all that we did,” he said in an interview after the convention.
Evaluations from sponsors give SA2011 high marks, as do codirectors Loewen of Hillsboro, Kan., and Neufeld and Rick Bartlett, both of Fresno, Calif.
“The event was a marvelous success and exceeded even my best expectations,” says Neufeld. “The responses we have received from all areas of the country have been overwhelmingly positive. Students were challenged to think about living a Christ-like lifestyle, they learned about Mennonite Brethren/Anabaptist distinctives and they became the hands and feet of Jesus by engaging in ministry to the city of San Antonio.”
San Antonio, the second oldest city in the United States, proved to be a good setting for a convention built around the theme of justice and righteousness. The city’s 1.6 million people are 65 to 75 percent Hispanic, with many fifth and sixth generation Mexican-Americans. This makes San Antonio the only metropolitan city in the U.S. where Latin Americans make up a majority of the population. DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), an inner city ministry that provides short and long-term opportunities in six U.S. cities, partnered with SA2011 to organize Monday’s ministry opportunities.
San Antonio is divided along racial lines, Eduardo Vargas, DOOR San Antonio assistant director and a San Antonio native, told sponsors in their orientation meeting. Monday most students spent time in either the Hispanic west section or in the African American east quadrant. DOOR works with about 20 helping agencies to address three major areas of social concern in San Antonio: homelessness, teenage pregnancy and a lack of affordable housing.
The 11-member planning team decided to demonstrate their commitment to justice by providing participants with “fair trade” event bags. The colorful bags were purchased from Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit program of Mennonite Central Committee, and each student could select from among several styles. Three USMB ministries—Tabor College, Fresno Pacific University and MB Foundation—as well as College Community Church of Clovis, Calif., underwrote the additional cost of the free trade bags.
Throughout the weekend and in a variety of ways, SA2011 participants were reminded by seminar and workshop leaders as well as from the main stage that they are part of a national Mennonite Brethren family with distinctive values.
“I think we emphasized the twin prongs of Anabaptism and evangelicalism that I'd summarize as loving God and loving neighbor,” says Bartlett. “Through the main sessions we emphasized new birth and relationship with Jesus and also loving our neighbors. Through Ministry Experience we practiced loving neighbors.”
As was the case with the 2007 youth convention, Tabor College and Fresno Pacific University, the two colleges owned and operated by U.S. Mennonite Brethren, were NYC supporters.
Each college organized a late night event. Students competed Saturday in various timed competitions using household items when Tabor College hosted “Minute To Win It.” FPU hosted a Late Night Party Sunday that included free food and a variety of inflatable games, including a velcro wall, sumo wrestling and bungee run. Christian magician and entertainer John Michael Hinton headlined Monday’s late night talent show. Youth gasped, shook heads and shouted “No way!” as Hinton made a selected card appear red in the deck, successfully read a student’s mind and more.
As youth groups arrived at the Grand Hyatt, teens and sponsors from the Latin American MB Conference (LAMB) wearing charcoal gray t-shirts greeted them. The LAMB Conference includes eight Hispanic churches, three of which have youth groups. These churches also provided each youth group with a bag filled with information and candies and sweet bread representing the unique foods of the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.
SA2011 participants could learn about the various agencies and ministries of the USMB family as they visited exhibits set up in the large hallway on the second floor of the hotel, a floor designated exclusively for SA2011 activities. In addition to the two MB colleges, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, MB Mission, MB Foundation and the U.S. Conference sent representatives to the event. Many of these agency representatives served as resource people for Sunday’s workshops and seminars.
Two inter-Mennonite agencies—Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Disaster Service—were also represented, as was Students International, a Christian community development agency based in Visalia, Calif., that brings students and the poor together.
The convention schedule offered two opportunities for participants to spend time in prayer. Participants could meet at 7:30 a.m. for a prayer time. A “prayer path” was available for anyone who wanted to spend about an hour in guided prayer. It included music, meditations, art, media and symbolic activities.
Attendance at the 2011 convention was lower than previous years and feedback from churches suggest the economy, concerns about Claiborne and declining denominational loyalty were to blame. All five USMB conferences were represented at SA2011 with a total of 827 conferees coming from 41 congregations. Forty-two support personnel and 49 seminar leaders and exhibitors brought the total to 918. The 2007 convention in Anaheim saw 1,075 students and sponsors while the 2003 event at Estes Park, Colo., drew 1,406 students and sponsors from 67 congregations.
“It’s hard to tell what the future of any national denominational event will be,” says Neufeld. “Denominational loyalty is clearly down and the economy makes it increasingly difficult for extensive travel.”
Regardless of the outlook for future National Youth Conventions, if comments left on the SA2011 Facebook page and essays by student reporters are any indication, students’ lives and faith were indeed flooded.
“I was changed from the inside out and God is sure doing something big in my life,” posted one student. “It was so challenging and changing…. It has to be one of the best few days of my life!”
Student reporter Arianna Castillo from Neighborhood Church, Visalia, Calif., says, “I will never be the same. It was a life changing four-day experience, filled with many “God moments!”
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