Every four years senior high students from Mennonite Brethren churches across the United States gather for meaningful worship, exciting Bible study and challenging ministry at the largest gathering of MBs in North America. This year 900 teens and sponsors will meet at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, right along the world famous River Walk. The theme for San Antonio 2011 is FLOOD from Amos 5:24, "Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Editors Connie Faber and Myra Holmes journal about the
- General Sessions with Paula Simpson-Parry and Shane Claiborne (Saturday and Sunday evenings and Monday and Tuesday mornings)
- Sunday morning workshops and seminars
- ministry opportunities offered Monday morning
- and whatever else catches our attention
Tuesday Morning Closing Session
Taking the flood home
“So this is the end,” emcee Trent Voth said as he offered closing comments to SA2011. “Go in peace and may those you encounter be blessed by you.”
In this morning’s final session, speaker Shane Claiborne similarly challenged the attendees to be a blessing, although he called it being “extremists for love and grace” in a world of extremes.
“The question is not whether we’ll be extremists,” he said, “but what kind of extremists will we be?”
In story after story—taken from his own life, church history and the Bible —Claiborne told of Christ-like love overcoming evil and of grace tearing down walls erected by misperceptions and judgment. Like the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus: “The closer we are to God, the less we want to throw stones at other people,” he said.
He reminded students and leaders alike that we are sinners, too. “This gospel is not for people who have it all together, but for those who are falling apart,” he said. He challenged them to read Scripture as a series of stories of people transformed by grace. “If God can use those people, he can use us.”
Claiborne also encouraged this next generation of Mennonite Brethren to embrace their heritage, saying the world needs the Anabaptist voice of love and peace. He reminded youth of Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist prisoner remembered for saving his captor at the cost of his own life. “That’s your story,” Claiborne said.
Claiborne’s closing story was a video of one of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity nuns touching and comforting a child suffering from both malnutrition and post-traumatic stress. It served as a dramatic and wordless example of grace in the face of suffering and left the room hushed.
“I want to love like that, don’t you?” Claiborne asked.
With that challenge hanging in the air, youth groups huddled for communion. Stories in Braille then led the students in worship, singing, “Let justice and grace become my embrace. Consume me from the inside out, Lord.” The mood was subdued, quiet on the surface but with a feeling of something big brewing beneath the surface. The song felt like a fitting closing prayer.
And then the hallways and elevators of the Grand Hyatt bustled as students poured out of their rooms with suitcases packed. Like a river in flood overflowing its banks, youth filed into buses and airport shuttles, spilling toward South Dakota and Kansas, California, Texas and North Carolina. Make no mistake: This flood has just begun.
Day 3 Evening Session
Taking it deeper
Something changed between Sunday evening’s session and tonight’s session – maybe the hearts of the teens who crowded the ballroom after a day of service ready to take the “flood” to new depths. As Stories in Braille led the group in worship, youth expressed themselves the most freely to this point in the convention, with clapping, upraised hands and sincere faces. “Oh happy day, happy day,” they sang. “I’ll never be the same. Forever I am changed.”
This was the session in which we finally heard from the much-anticipated and much-debated Shane Claiborne. Claiborne’s appearance made a dramatic contrast with the petite and proper Brit, Paula Simpson-Parry, with his waist-long dreadlocks, Tennessee drawl and animated storytelling. As he began to talk, he called for an affirmative “Amen” now and then. At first, only a few responded, but soon these MB youth were Amen-ing freely.
“This whole Christian thing has got to be more than being born again, again,” Claiborne said. He then told stories from his own life, showing youth a faith that wells up in a flood of love: working with Mother Teresa and lepers in Calcutta, India, learning what it means to truly share from a poor kid given a rare ice cream treat and throwing a “kingdom party” in Philadelphia and then getting arrested because it involved feeding the homeless.
He also showed a video of a man by the name of Mark Weaver who committed to selling all he had to give to the poor, even though he really had nothing of significance to give. Then Mark won a small fortune on “The Price is Right,” and changed the lives of many Ugandan AIDS orphans when he followed through on his commitment, not only giving to the orphans but also living among them.
All the stories portrayed Christians who followed Jesus no matter what the cost, in big ways and especially in small ways. “A flood is made up of lots of little drops,” he told the youth.
“God does not want to change the world without you.”
Interaction with Claiborne continued with a question-and-answer time following the session; Claiborne preferred to call it a conversation. Students asked honest and heartfelt questions about Claiborne’s experience in Calcutta, keeping motivation, what to do when the feelings of faith have gone, people who impacted Claiborne’s faith, how to obey a more radical calling when parents don’t agree, living as a peacemaker when violence touches friends and talking about Jesus to those who don’t believe. Claiborne answered each question with kindly-told stories and examples. Claiborne was also available for informal conversation with students in the hallway after the session.
Two youth groups chose not to hear Claiborne's message, having arranged alternate activities with the planning team before the convention.
Tomorrow’s session will explore grace and send the youth home to live out what they’ve learned here.
Day 3 at SA2011
SA2011 goes hands-on
This morning and afternoon the SA2011 youth groups took to the streets of San Antonio to practice a bit of justice and righteousness – what they’ve been learning about through the SA2011 sessions and workshops so far. The CL editors, guided by co-director Tim Neufeld, stopped in at several work sites to sample the kinds of assignments students tackled for this day of ministry. Here’s what we saw:
Youth from Buhler (Kan.) MB Church served at American Sunrise Learning Center, a nonprofit that provides after-school tutoring and educational summer programs for elementary-aged kids within a one-mile radius. American Sunrise also offers financial services, English as a second language classes and computer training for parents and works closely with the families to help the children get the education they need. Sunrise hopes to renovate two houses located across the street and expand their services to include early childhood education in order to better serve this “West Side” San Antonio community.
Since the facility would be empty until after school, Buhler youth had an excellent opportunity to spruce up the yard by pulling weeds, mowing, cleaning trash and painting. One student said that, while she really had no idea what to expect of their service experience, she was enjoying her work – giving a picnic table a fresh coat of cheerful pink paint.
Just down the street, a group from Community Bible Church, Olathe, Kan., did similar work at Inman Christian Center, which provides child care and infant care for the community. The center is surrounded by government-funded housing, and many of the children come from less-than-desirable home lives. Youth leaders said the students were digging into their jobs with positive attitudes and a willingness to work.
When it was time for lunch break, the students were sent in shifts to eat at neighborhood restaurants – an intentional part of their community service. In an orientation for youth group leaders earlier in the weekend, co-director Wendell Loewen explained that a when group of a dozen or two young people buy lunch at one of these small restaurants, it can make a significant impact on that local business and on the neighborhood economy. In that way, even eating lunch becomes a form of service.
North Oak Community Church, Hays, Kan., was one of the groups sent on a “City Search” – a kind of treasure hunt in which the goal was learning about the community. The Hays group traveled by city bus to the same “West Side” area in which the Olathe and Buhler groups served, which is no coincidence. The students learned that many service organizations were located in this needy area.
Once off the bus, they headed out on foot to gather information at a number of stops. This group’s stops so far included the community recreation center, where they learned how a swimming pool provides much-needed health resources for the community; a high school, where they learned about a model for education much different than the one they’re used to; and a community center, where they heard about services to all ages and life stages, from after-school programs to food distributions for the elderly, to crisis pregnancy help.
“We did get lost,” admitted a youth leader, but the group was able to find their way again quickly and the detour didn’t seem to dampen spirits. Students clearly were soaking up the learning with enthusiasm, eagerly talking about new things they had learned at each stop.
Traveling back to the downtown area, we encountered Bethel MB Church youth and sponsors as they were just beginning their City Search.
While each group could choose between three different “levels” of intensity for their ministry experience, the more intense experiences weren’t necessarily better, just different. The City Search, for example, was a “level one” experience, but participants reaped a great deal of learning. Which is part of the point, according to Tim Neufeld.
“We don’t want this to be just a service opportunity but also a learning opportunity,” Neufeld said. “We want them to learn.”
Several miles away, two groups – Neighborhood Church, Visalia, Calif., and Ebenfeld MB Church, Hillsboro, Kan., — were digging into one of the more intense learning and ministry experiences. They served at Mission Road Developmental Center, a faith-based ministry for children and adults with developmental disabilities. This facility operates under the umbrella of Mission Road Ministries, which oversees five programs for the developmentally disabled in San Antonio. Together, the five programs serve some 700 people.
Today at Mission Road, students served by helping set up, run and clean up a “fiesta” for about 100 people in the adult day program. This is an annual event for the ministry, but chaplain Jim De Hoog explained that in past years, staff ran the carnival-like day, leaving them little time or energy to interact with the people they care so much about. This year, the infusion of help allowed them to do that.
The youth also had ample opportunities to interact with the clients as they ran game booths, painted faces and served food. Two Neighborhood students – new experts in the finer points of serving popcorn and hot dogs – said that they were especially glad their assignment required relational interaction. While they valued past service experiences that emphasized meeting physical needs, they said, “ultimately, it’s people we care about.”
Meanwhile, youth from Enid (Okla.) MB Church and Christ Community Church, Sioux Falls, SD, were experiencing quite a different kind of “intense” ministry. These groups worked at a Habitat for Humanity site, lending hammer-and-nails help to a house in construction. They did things like clean the floor to prepare it for flooring, lay tile and install shingles.
This was intense work of a physical nature, made especially taxing by the San Antonio heat and humidity – a heat index around 100 degrees. But the youth served with smiles, however hot and weary. An Enid leader said that the group was large enough that they had to work in shifts, and students were so eager to serve that they gave up their job to the next “shift” only reluctantly.
Sessions tonight and tomorrow will help youth further understand what they saw and experienced this morning and afternoon. The hope, said Neufeld, is that these students will take these experiences back home with them, that they will “connect Christ-like living – living justly, living righteously – in their own communities.”
Day 2 at SA2011
Seminars offer "heart training"
It was standing-room only Sunday morning as attendees of SA2011engaged in “heart training” through some 21 seminars and workshops aimed at capturing imaginations. Organizers hoped that the seminars and workshops would help students take their faith a step further: from ”knowing it” to “loving it,” as co-director Wendell Loewen describes.
Seminars and workshops explored a wide variety of topics, such as the Mennonite Brethren peace position, immigration in the U.S., mission and money, dating, church planting, everyday obedience and race relations in the church, just to name a few. Each attendee could attend two, since the seminars and workshops ran in two blocks.
Organizers issued an invitation for workshop topics and presenters as part of their preparation, and a variety of presenters responded. MB Mission, the global mission agency of North American MBs, provided resource people for a number of mission-related topics, some tied to specific locales, such as Burkina Faso, Central America and Portugal. USMB national staff provided expertise for others, such as church planting, relational evangelism and a special leaders-only workshop on social media and ministry. Others came from USMB partners Mennonite Central Committee, MB Foundation, Tabor College and Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. US MB church planters, pastors and youth pastors also lent their knowledge and personal experience to this training time.
After the late nights – or very early mornings – some of the students had, one might be surprised that they would get out of bed early, but most rooms were overflowing with attentive teens. Not only did they fill the chairs, but they also sat wall-to-wall on the floor and stood around room perimeters. Any late-comers peered around doorways and spilled into hallways. If that’s any indication, it seems the training was well-received.
Sunday afternoon the SA2011 participants spent their time exploring the city—sightseeing, eating and shopping along the River Walk, visiting the historic Alamo and spending time with new and old friends in the hotel.
The Rivercenter Mall was a popular shopping spot and was the starting point for a narrated boat tour of the River Walk. Thanks to the two South Dakota churches who invited this CL editor to join their tour! The River Walk is along the San Antonio River and winds its way through historic downtown San Antonio.
Many SA2011 participants found their way to the historic Alamo where they visited a chapel, barracks and museum. The informative 20-minute lecture given by Alamo guides provided a helpful context to the phrase, “Remember the Alamo!”
Evidence of Fiesta, an annual festival celebrating the city, was everywhere and added to the atmosphere and hospitality we experienced on our free day.
The afternoon will give the students an interesting contrast to the experiences many will have Monday as they explore the life of every-day residents of this city for which tourism is a very important industry.
It is an amazing feeling to be standing with 950-plus Mennonite Brethren teens and sponsors as they sing, “I’ll stand with arms high and heart abandoned, in awe of the one who gave it all.” Their arms are raised above their heads as they sing this chorus one final time without instrumental accompaniment: “All I am is yours.”
It was a fitting end to an evening of worship that focused on mission and God’s healing flood.
General Session 2 opened with a prayer offered for the state of North Carolina and the students who were at SA2011 from that state that is currently in a state of emergency following a series of tornados.
After a brief presentation by the Fresno Pacific University admissions staff, SA2011 participants heard from MB Mission representative Mark Thompson who introduced a video highlighting Burkina Faso. MB mission workers have been in this African Muslim country for 20 years translating the Bible and in the last 3 years have seen two churches born. “I pray that God would make us a bright light in our village,” said one African believer.
Stories in Braille led the audience in a series of worship songs that focused on God’s love, justice and mercy.
Paula Simpson-Parry spoke again from Ezekiel 47 and noted three things God’s flood offers: It restores and refreshes. It heals. It brings life. She again emphasized that it is only when God is present in one’s life can God’s love and grace overflow to others.
She told the students about a canal the British town of Lincoln that looks fine from a distance but is in fact dirty, stinky and potentially harmful if drank. “Do you want to be a stagnant pool or refreshing water?” she asked. Sharing a personal story about a time when “what came out of my mouth was not pretty,” Parry reminded her audience that the words we say can “block the flow of God’s love and healing from entering someone else’s life.”
Parry focused on God’s call to forgive one another as one way in which God brings healing. She spoke of just recently forgiving her mother for events from her youth and the ways God has blessed her family since.
Parry concluded with the story from John 4 of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman as an illustration of the way in which God’s river floods our lives with life. She emphasized Christ’s death as the reason why Christians can bring change into individual lives and communities.
“Take a minute to think about where you are with God,” said Parry, “and be honest about where you’d like to be.” She invited youth sponsors to stand and as the worship band led the group in singing she asked those students who were making a first-time commitment to follow Christ or who were looking for a “fresh start” to stand with their youth leaders. “Make the best decision you could ever make,” she said.
Following a final song, participants were asked to meet together as youth groups for discussion, sharing and prayer. Groups were invited to spread out to various meeting rooms located on three floors of the hotel. While some groups gathered for about 30 minutes, others met longer.
Fresno Pacific University hosted a late night party in the fourth-floor ballroom. Some students sat in small groups talking, playing games and visiting and munching on cookies. Others took advantage of the inflatable activities that filled the back half of the room, including a bungee run, sumo wresting and Velcro wall.
Day One at SA2011
Flooding the Grand Hyatt
You could feel the anticipation of everyone on the 2nd floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown San Antonio late Saturday morning, April 16. Something big was coming very soon. There was that feeling of excitement that comes from preparing long and hard and well for something that is just about to begin happening.
For three years, 11 members of the National Youth Conference (NYC) had been praying and working together towards this day—the beginning of San Antonio 2011, the largest gathering of Mennonite Brethren in North America. They had chosen Amos 5:24 as the theme verse and the word FLOOD as the key phrase. And now the flood of 950 students and sponsors, presenters and resource speakers was about to hit.
The planning team had grown to 25 people for the weekend and included a nurse, sound technician, 11 student interns from the two U.S. MB colleges Fresno Pacific University in California and Tabor College in Kansas, who support the NYC. And the organizers were as prepared as one could be for a four-day flood of this magnitude.
LAMB youth welcome guests
The first to arrive for SA2011 was Bible Fellowship of Rapid City, SD. As youth groups arrived, some of the first folks they saw were youth and sponsors from the Latin America MB Conference (LAMB), who were wearing charcoal gray LAMB t-shirts and were standing around the hotel’s first and second floor ready to greet their out-of-state guests.
A large group of LAMB teens and sponsors attended the NYC in 1979 and Moises Tagle, LAMB youth leader, says the youth in his district have enjoyed traveling around the country to attend the event. When the teens heard that this time the national event would be held in their backyard, they were disappointed to not be traveling to some other location. And so Tagle talked with co-chair Tim Neufeld, who is responsible for on-site logistics, and the two determined that the LAMB youth would serve their peers as greeters and hosts.
The LAMB churches also provided each youth group with a green welcome bag filled with treats that are popular in their community. The bag included a type of sweet bread that is very popular in the Rio Grande Valley and packages of candy from Mexico. The bag included brochures from the area, coupons, brochures and information about getting discounts at various restaurants along San Antonio’s River Walk.
Mennonite Brethren in Texas are clustered in eight communities along the Rio Grande River. The birth of this conference of Mexican Americans can be traced to two families from Corn, Okla., who in 1927 partnered with Ricardo Pena of the Rio Grande Valley to stir up concern among Mennonite Brethren in the Southern District (Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri) to evangelize the Valley. The first missionaries arrived in 1937, the first mission was constructed in 1942 and a day school was established in 1948. The LAMB Conference was formed in 1960 and the congregations have continued reaching out to their communities and to Mexico.
Registration was a three-step process. While one youth worker from each group registered with the hotel and got room keys, a second youth worker went up with the students (and all of their stuff) to the second floor. The kids waited while an adult visited the SA2011 conference office to pick-up name tags and get some instructions.
Once students were given their name tags, they walked to the other side of the second floor hallway to do some shopping! NYC participants have historically received a bag of some sort filled with convention materials. This time the planning team wanted to provide a tangible expression of the convention emphasis on justice and righteousness. So each participant selected from about several styles of “fair trade” bags provided by Mennonite Central Committee.
The bags were not sewn in a “sweat shop” environment, co-chair Tim Neufeld said during the opening session Saturday evening. The men and women who crafted these bags were paid a fair wage and worked in a just environment. Because these bags cost as much as three-times that of a backpack produced in a sweat shop, three MB agencies—Fresno Pacific University, Tabor College and MB Foundation—and College Community Church of Clovis, Calif., who did some fund-raising for the project, paid for the bags.
The 50-some youth groups had all arrived via chartered bus, plane and van by about 6 pm. Most groups had time to settle into the “very fine hotel” that would be their home for the next 4 days and to walk to the nearby mall food court or other restaurant along the River Walk for dinner.
More than once during the opening sessions of SA2011 one couldn’t help but feel pleased and satisfied at being part of the Mennonite Brethren. In being part of a people who have always been committed to following Jesus and to living out that faith in daily life.
“Mennonite Brethren have a heart for service,” SA2011 co-chair Wendell Loewen told youth sponsors at their opening youth leaders meeting Saturday. Most of the youth leader’s opening orientation was spent understanding the city and the ways in which the students would be experiencing San Antonio Monday during the ministry opportunities.
“I want us to be a blessing to this city and to serve in whatever capacity we can,” Loewen told the youth workers.
It was Loewen, who on behalf of the Planning Team, gave a very brief history of the Mennonite Brethren during the opening General Session. “We are a people who believe in following Jesus and our faith leads us to living for Jesus in our daily lives,” said Loewen.
“This weekend we want to move you faith from your head where you know it, to your heart when you love it to your hands where you do it,” he said.
Serving the city
San Antonio is the second oldest city in the United States and its population is between 65 and 75% Hispanic, said Eduardo, one of the DOOR San Antonio staff members involved in planning for Monday’s activities. That makes San Antonio the only metropolitan city in the U.S. where Latin Americans make up a majority of the population. DOOR is an inner city ministry with roots in the Mennonite churches of Denver, Colo. DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection) is active six cities and provides short and long-term service opportunities.
San Antonio is divided along racial lines, said Eduardo Vargas, the DOOR San Antonio assistant director and a San Antonio native. The west section is the Hispanic area where one sees billboards in Spanish and one can enjoy good Mexican food. The east section is the African America community and the north is the Anglo community and commerce in that area extends out about 20 miles. San Antonio has three major industries: tourism, the military (with seven bases in the community) and the medical field.
“God is in the city,” said DOOR national staff member Krista Dutt, who is from DOOR Chicago. “You have much to give to the city and the city has a lot to teach you.”
DOOR San Antonio city director Danielle Miller spoke of the “deep faith and much joy” present in the Christian communities of San Antonio.
Most youth groups signed up for a hands-on service experience Monday and those groups will be serving in “doing” and “being” ways, said Miller. Some youth will be doing a City Search designed to introduce them to issues of justice and righteousness (Amos 5:24) faced by city dwellers. Youth groups involved in both assignments will also be doing some “investing” service, said Miller, when they eat their lunch at local “mom and pop” restaurants. “A group of 24 kids will be a big boost to those little shops,” she said.
Many groups will be traveling on city buses and the DOOR staff encouraged sponsors to remind the teens that they need to “show respect” to the people that use the buses to get to and from work. Part of that will be “diffusing our impact on the bus system,” said Loewen, and so groups will be leaving downtown San Antonio at different times so as to not put a drain on the city’s resources.
Earlier that day Loewen had sent some of the Tabor College event interns on the City Search and he and his assitant, Joanna Chappa, were busy making last-minute adjustments to the instruction sheets.
Chappa, who is from the Texas Rio Grande Valley, said she has spent time in San Antonio as a tourist. But now that she has been involved in preparing for the SA2011 Ministry Opportunity she has seen
the “real" San Antonio. Chappa hopes teens from her conference and the other USMB districts will be challenged by their experiences on Monday.
Seeing the contrast between San Antonio as a tourist and as a metropolitan center with needs will be a stretching experience for the students, said co-chair Tim Neufeld, who is responsible for on-site logistics. Another area in which students may be challenged is living for a weekend in a “very fine hotel” like the Grand Hyatt, said Neufeld. “We’re entering someone else’s world when we ride the buses,” said Neufeld. “We’re also entering someone else’s world at the hotel.” So wearing shoes, for example, is one of those standards that Neufeld asked the leaders to impress on their students.
Approaching The Flood
The Lone Star Ballroom was filled at 7:30 pm when General Session 1 began. Professional stage lighting and two large screens allowed everyone in the room to see the stage. Short videos featured two exhibitors: Tabor College and Students International.
Trent Voth of Fresno, Calif., and Ben Marques of Wichita, Kan., hosted the session. Co-chairs Tim Neufeld and Rick Bartlett of Fresno and Wendell Loewen of Hillsboro, Kan, gave some introductions and Stories in Braille, a four-member band from San Jose, Calif., led in worship.
Using Ezekial 47:1-5 as her text, keynote speaker Paula Simpson-Parry challenged the students to get into the flood of what God is doing. “You can only flood out what has come into your life,” she said.
Parry’s message answered three questions: How do we get into the flood? How do we move away from the edge? How do we go deeper?
“God asks us to just take one step and to stand in his flood,” said Parry in answer to the first question. God doesn’t care how long it takes, how many questions we have or how uncertain we are. Mistakes and fears should not hold us back. “Your past does not determine your future,” said Parry, emphasizing that this was one of the most important statements she would make that evening. “God celebrates when we jump into his flood.”
Moving away from the edge requires that we “look up. Look to God,” said Parry. “Are we going to be people who let God put his strength inside of us? As God floods into my life, it overflows into the people around me.”
She said, “God is putting drams and visions into your life right now! You need to get in, move away from the edge and go deeper.”
Going deeper means relying on God’s gift of grace, said Parry, and grace is something we can’t earn. “God is leave. For God to stop loving us would be fore God to not be God. He loves us just because of who he is.”
Late Night: Minute To Win It was hosted by Tabor College. Like contestants on the popular TV game show, students were invited to participate in a variety of competitions—unwinding crepe paper streamers, bouncing pencils into cups, rolling marbles, advancing a pedometer strapped to your forehead. Unlike the TV version, all participants in the SA2011 version got a prize.
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