In August of 1994, I packed a bag with far too many t-shirts, my mom drove me to the airport, and I got on a plane to Minneapolis.
I had no idea what I was getting into.
I thought I knew. I really, really didn’t.
In the months that followed, I traveled thousands of miles, mostly on tiny county roads in the upper midwest, with a team of like-minded individuals. We traveled six days a week, circling Lake Michigan, playing concerts in churches, schools, nursing homes, one youth detention center, and, if I remember correctly, an unscheduled bit outside of a grocery store in Rockford, Ill.
We slept in host homes, on church pews, at summer camps. We ate more red-sauced pastas, pizza, and ham sandwiches than I care to remember.
The organization that gave us the opportunity to do this ridiculous thing, Youth Encounter, is closing up shop after 51 years of ministry.
Fifty-one years. All fifty states. Thirty-two countries. Twenty-five hundred teamers. Thousands of other volunteers. An estimated eight million people reached by the message.
Most people in my world now have no idea this was something I was a part of. My faith is personal to me. I don’t shout it from the rooftops. If the subject of faith or Christianity or theology comes up, I might add to the conversation, but I have yet to toss my Bible onto the table and proclaim,”Let’s talk about the Lord!”
That’s the funny part. That wasn’t even my style then. I literally have no idea what I was doing there. To this day, I’m convinced it was a clerical error and I got a letter of call instead of some other, more worthy candidate.
Regardless, my time with Youth Encounter was over long ago and now the organization is facing it’s last days.
Times have changed. The mission of the organization when I was a part of it was “To strengthen the Church through the faith of its youth.”
It was a time before the megachurches, before attendance at “contemporary” services was often higher than traditional church services. It was before every church had a full band set-up next to the altar.
It was before Twitter and Facebook and even *gasp* Myspace.
Dave Anderson, the founder of what was then Lutheran Youth Encounter, spoke at the event that was held tonight to commemorate the end of YE. “I can’t believe,” he said,”this ministry has gone on so long that we need decaf. We’re no longer youth for Christ. We’re old people for God.”
Youth Encounter changed a lot over the years. Starting with one team that traveled in Scandinavia, growing to send teams (usually of 5-8 people) to every corner of the globe. At its height, it sent out as many as fourteen teams in a year. My team, Captive Free – West Great Lakes, was one of (I think) ten on the road that year with six regional stateside teams and four internationals.
How did it work?
I applied. I took a personality test that was about a bajillion yes or no questions. Things like “I like tall women: yes or no.” Well, uh, I don’t *dislike* tall women. Most people also did an audition tape, an acapella version of “Beautiful Savior.” I somehow managed to never do one (see? clerical error).
Most everyone had an in-person interview. My first was with Greg Birgy. Greg, bless him, is the spitting image of that picture of white, blonde Jesus that hangs in every church rec hall in North America. He’s a good guy, a dear friend after all these years. But, after that interview and the extensive application process, the letter I received was a letter of deferral.
I was devastated. I was a year out of high school and didn’t really have a plan. I was writing, taking classes, treading water.
I waited over a year before trying again.
This time, my interview was with Robin Bragge. Robin was the director of international teams and had the quickest, sharpest mind of anyone I’ve ever known. I was terrified of her.
We sat across from each other in a McDonald’s in San Jose and she grilled me until she caught me. I’d said something about “when I go on team” and she stopped me. “When? Not if?”
I didn’t know what to say.
When, not if.
If, not when.
I’m a big fan of the concept of free will. Things in our lives aren’t predestined. We make our own decisions and we reap the rewards or we suffer the consequences. But sometimes, I think maybe we’re pushed toward paths that lead us to the people we’re supposed to meet.
Robin and Greg took a chance (or checked the wrong box – I’ve never asked) and sent me a letter of call in the spring of 1994.
I talked to Troy Loken in July and he told me my teammate’s names, which I wrote down wrong, and I got on a plane in August to go to a city I’d never seen and get in a van with six strangers to tour the midwest.
We made it through training, an intensive several weeks that included a trip out into the wilds of South Dakota for a week-long stay at Lee Valley Ranch to refine our musical program (“Hey, you wanna play bass? Here. Hold this.”) and to better develop our interpersonal relationships. If you’re going to live out of a van for a year with six other people, you have to figure out how to get along right quick.
I say we made it through training, but we didn’t really. We lost our first team member at a rest area on the way back from Lee Valley. So, that was weird.
With a week of training left before our commissioning and send-off, we were already in recovery mode. Rework the program, do it as quicky as possible. There was a lot of yelling.
But we did it. And we packed everything into our van and trailer (the mechanic said we’d be okay with the van if we didn’t pull a trailer, and the guy who fixed the trailer said it’d be fine if we didn’t put too much weight into it), and we did a training program in Osage, Iowa, then set off into Wisconsin.
That first night on the road, I stayed with a family of dairy farmers. I was in a completely different world.
I’d seen some of the international teams before, teams sent into Africa or Papau New Guinea, into places so poor that to refuse a meal would be an incredible insult as the entire village would have pooled their resources in order to offer it to you. I did not expect to find similar experiences in the United States.
People housed us, fed us, gave us whatever we needed. When our van broke down outside of Joliet, Ill., one of our host families put up the money to get it fixed. Young couple, couple of kids, mom was getting ready to go back to school. They were struggling to make ends meet, but they saw a need and decided to fulfill it. I still look back at that and wonder if we should have accepted their kindness but I also know that to have refused it would have been refusing their part in a ministry that meant a great deal to them.
I could tell dozens of stories like this, as could any of the 2,500 hundred people like me to spent that year (or two, or three) on the road. As much as we were out in the world to do ministry, we were also ministered to.
Before tonight’s celebration, there was a gathering of folks at a pizza place nearby because, apparently, none of us ate enough pizza when we were on the road. I went, not knowing if I’d know anyone there.
As it turns out, I didn’t. I recognized a few people, but I didn’t really know them. I sat quietly by myself (I know this is shocking to all of you) but an older gentleman named Larry asked if he could sit with me. Turns out he was an event tech from Chicago (likely worked the events my team did when we were there). “I had to come,” he told me. “I’ve had enough things that I didn’t get closure for lately. I need to see this through.”
When I landed in Minneapolis in 1994, it was Lowell Michelson who met me at the airport. And when I got to the church tonight, it was Lowell who greeted me there.
The church was filled with faces and voices from my past, musicians and vocalists, ministers and teachers, hundreds of people whose lives were changed because someone said,”Hey, come do this thing.”
It’s a hard thing to say goodbye to and I do so with mixed feelings. While YE was a driving force in my life from roughly 1988 – 1998, the tone of the ministry changed and some people who’d given so much of themselves to the organization were alienated by it.
I am thankful for the ministry it was. I’m thankful for the lives it not only changed but saved. I’m thankful for the experience of it, from high school kid locked out of a hotel room in 1988 to leadership training in 1990 to sound tech in 1994 to the life I’ve lived beyond the time when my mailing address was 2500 39th Ave NE, Minneapolis MN, 55421.