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Lutheran Youth Gathering will draw thousands to Detroit

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Nightly worship in the echoing expanse of Ford Field. Interactive learning at Cobo Center. Days spent outdoors in neighborhoods across the city, laboring to board up abandoned homes, clear overgrown lots, install rain gardens.

Nearly 30,000 youths and others with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will descend on Detroit from July 15-19 for their first Youth Gathering hosted in the city are eager to join a slew of activities.

Through each, many participants from across the country are celebrating their chance to grow spiritually while helping out in Michigan’s largest metropolitan area.

“This is sort of a rite of passage for young Lutherans,” said Lisa Jeffreys, service learning coordinator for the event. “They’ve been excited about Detroit and fundraising to get here, and working and preparing for this pilgrimage.”

The church group has headed the gatherings for high school age youths since the late 1980s, traditionally every three years, Jeffreys said. New Orleans hosted the last in 2012.

Church officials selected Detroit for this year’s version, themed “Rise Up Together,” based partly on its ability to house an event that typically draws many thousands of guests — including hotel rooms available and a sizable stadium, said Heidi Hagstrom, Youth Gathering program director.

And in keeping with the Lutheran tradition that informs the event, “more important to us is that there is a city in need of some service,” she said. “Service learning is a big part of the program for our event and how our young people act out their faith. We certainly felt Detroit was in a position to use a little boost from the energy that young people can bring.”

To that end, each youth participates in a day of service. Participants will team up with nonprofits and community-centered groups on scores of projects — many involving beautification and neighborhood improvement — across Detroit as well as in Highland Park, Inkster and Wayne, Jeffreys said. “It’s a whole variety of things.”

That’s not the only way for the youths to leave a lasting impact in the area. Since they were encouraged to bring along a donation, many are expected to present boxes of diapers to low-income families, Jeffreys said. Inkster-based Starfish Family Services is set to distribute the items, she said.

“We’re going to have thousands and thousands of diapers as a result of this,” she said. “Those will go to lots of different organizations that provide extra support for families.”

Hundreds also are expected in Detroit on July 12-15 for the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, which targets minorities and others, as well as the Definitely Abled Leadership Event for those with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges, church officials said. The events lead up to the youth gathering.

A highlight of the youth gathering is uniting each night at Ford Field for music as well as addresses from pastors, religious officials and others.

“It’s completely different from being in a church,” said Demetrius Dennis, a Detroit teen acting as an MC. “I don’t think there are huge events like this too often. People are really excited.”

The gathering gives Lutheran youths a chance to interact with like-minded peers and “put their faith into action — to move past talking about it and into doing something with folks in the city of Detroit,” said the Rev. Donald Kreiss, bishop for the Southeast Michigan Synod of the church group, who also plans to speak at the gathering.

“My hope is that it will be a great demonstration for the city of Detroit and the folks who live here.”

mhicks@detroitnews.com