By Christopher De La Cruz
More than 4,700 high school students took over Purdue University in Indiana during five hot, humid days in July for the 2016 Presbyterian Youth Triennium, a worshipful and energetic gathering jointly sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Teens engaged in traditions such as trading regional pins – I’ll give you a crab-shaped Baltimore Presbytery for a New Jersey hot dog – and pre-worship “energizers” (imagine thousands of teenagers doing aerobic dance routines for the soul), while also committing to growing closer to God.
The theme of the sermons and small groups was ostensibly “Go,” but it felt more like “Go, as you are,” emphasizing God’s call for all people, regardless of identity, stereotypes or failures.
Leading off, Rodger Nishioka, director of adult ministries at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, listed ways may high schoolers feel like they aren’t enough – not being tall enough, short enough, masculine enough, feminine enough, old enough to matter. Not enough to be loved, or to have gifts for serving God. But understanding that God chose to reveal Jesus’ birth first to shepherds, who were otherwise looked down in first-century society, tells otherwise, Nishioka said.
“All those ‘not enough’ messages are a lie,” Nishioka said, to passionate applause. “You are enough.”
The triennium Drama Team, consisting of Brianna Coppolino, Francois Ibrahim, Olivia Magaraci, and James CI Williams, all from New Jersey, offered liturgical dance and drama during worship.
“Who has ever been called a freak before?” one of the drama team members called out during the last worship service, acknowledging the pain and struggle of teenagers trying to fit in. “I’m going to embrace my freakiness as a gift from God.”
Activities on the Purdue campus green space pushed themes of acceptance and service emerging from knowing Christ. Tables were set up to write letters of encouragement to mission partners and people in need. At another station, teens wrote prayers on fabric and hung them on a line.
A prominent activity set up was a “Hate Wall,” featuring derogatory words and stereotypes about various groups – “thug,” “redneck,” “anti-LGBTQ” – spray-painted on the walls of wooden boxes. High schoolers then took ribbons and wrote messages and prayers of love to symbolically cover up the hurtful language.
Don’t worry: the kids had fun too, including a chaotic glow-stick dance party, lip sync battles, and impromptu Ultimate Frisbee games and late evening pizza orders.
Other speakers and preachers included Alice Ridgill, the founding pastor of New Faith Presbyterian Church in Greenwood, South Carolina, who talked about how God was a F-U-N God (forgiving, understanding, and never-too-busy). Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said that being half-Mexican, half- Puerto Rican, and openly gay, he never thought he would have the position he has in the Presbyterian Church, and in some ways felt rejected by that very church for years.
“I realized it was all part of God’s plan,” De La Rosa said during the final night’s worship service. “I just wish God let me in on the game plan … Don’t ever give up when [the church] disappoints you.”
Teens attending Triennium said they experienced God in relationships formed, in worshipping with thousands of other Christians, and through understanding the interconnectedness of God’s grace as a gift and of gratitude expressed by fighting injustice and spreading the good news.
“He (Christ) did the hard thing for us, so we have to do the hard things for him,” said Savanna Duke, 15, from Tacoma, Washington.
CHRISTOPHER DE LA CRUZ is the director of Christian formation at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.