Pilgrimage to “The Rock”

Youth Forum happened early this year… a new way of doing things. Each Conference of The United Church of Canada was invited to send five youth to a long-weekend gathering at Five Oaks (one of our church educational centres, near Paris, Ontario), where they would begin preparation for the 42nd General Council – “Behold I Make All Things New.” So, beginning on Friday, February 13, some 60 teenagers, several home group leaders, two worship leaders, two musicians, four or five staff and workshop leaders, and a First Nations elder all came together with incredible energy and spirit… which I wish I could have bottled, and then sprinkled over all of us across the country.

Thirteen of these teenagers were chosen to go on a pilgrimage to General Council. Starting in July they will arrive in Vancouver, and begin to travel across the country, visiting with various congregations, hearing questions and concerns about the church, the Comprehensive Review, our future, our hopes. They will be commissioners at General Council, and will share what they’ve discovered with all the rest of us who end up at Corner Brook. If they show up in your neighbourhood as they travel from west to east, be sure to welcome them! And keep them in your prayers!

Twenty-six other teens from Youth Forum will also be going to General Council, some as commissioners, others as youth delegates. And another 20 or so will be hosts along the way, holding the pilgrims and the church in prayer, and keeping connected with the pilgrimage through social media. The choice of who would be pilgrim, commissioner, youth delegate, or host was one the youth themselves made. It wasn’t easy. I was deeply moved by their commitment to discern, to be honest, to support each other… and to make the best decision for the church.

It was a powerful weekend. Each morning, Matthew Stevens, a United Church minister of Kanien’keha:ka Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) and Irish Métis heritage, offered a time of Aboriginal teachings. There was intense worship and powerful workshops (e.g., the “Blanket Exercise,” an experiential way of learning about Aboriginal and settler history; a session on how to build a safe and liberating community; another on how to create and maintain activist groups). There was an interactive two-hour session on the church’s decision-making processes. (How to enter the debate at General Council and get your voice heard; and learning the terminology – what’s a proposal? a commission? a sessional committee?); and another two-hour presentation on the Comprehensive Review. What was amazing to me was how these teens hung in; they were so involved and eager to learn; they loved the church… the United Church! I had brought along United Church Crest tattoos (the temporary kind), and by the end of the afternoon we were all wearing one, and continued to flash our colours for the rest of the weekend!

On the opening night we sang “The New Creed” [PDF] – a version that Andrew Aitchison (a member of the worship and music team for the 42nd General Council) has written. But we had forgotten to prepare a PowerPoint with the words. No matter… this was a community that knew the words; and when some of us forgot a particular line, there was always someone else who was able to sing out… we are stronger in community, and together we know what needs to be known.

I was one of the older persons there – but young enough in spirit to remember my days of being a youth minister, and to rejoice, as I looked around, in the next generation of those who are passionate about youth – the Youth Forum Design Team (Miriam Bowlby, Daniel Reed, Lauren King, and Alana Martin) people in their thirties and forties, leading worship, home groups, what have you. And then, the next generation after that… 19 and 23 year olds already stepping up and offering leadership; with dozens of 16 year olds soaking it all up, and getting ready for when their turn comes… soon! We may be smaller in numbers as a denomination, but we are in good hands.

I was amazed at the musical gifts that flowed, and that were so willingly offered – Navan on guitar, singing one his own songs; Kaylyn, Jacqueline, and Evan on piano; Ethan doing a wicked instrumental guitar rendition of “Blackbird,” Max reading a poem by the Sufi mystic, Hafiz; Aurora drumming on the djembe; Regina, teaching us to sing “Jesus Loves Me” in her first language, Shona. You’ll be hearing some of this talent at GC 42.

Maya Landell (minister at Innerkip-Eastwood Pastoral Charge in London Conference and Coordinator of Worship and Music for GC 42) and I were responsible for worship. We decided that I should bring a prayer stone for each person there… not just any old stone, but one that came from the Pacific Ocean. You should have seen the surprised looks at the airport when they weighed my suitcase, and asked, “What have you got in here… rocks?”, and I smiled and said, “Yes, about 80 big ones!” At one point these stones became the symbol of what we needed to let go of; another time, the gifts we brought, and that were offered to another person; later, we built a cairn with our stones, an expression of our covenant with each other. On the final day, with each of us holding a rock in hand, we were reminded that “The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my rock in whom I take refuge… (Psalm 18:2); that Jesus is the cornerstone, the rock of our salvation; that Simon was renamed Peter, the Rock, an ordinary person who helped build the church. And we heard the invitation and the challenge, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” (1 Peter 2:4) – which is exactly what was happening at Youth Forum, and what will continue to happen as we all journey towards General Council 42 in Corner Brook.