7/30/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn
This story is accompanied by photographs, sidebars - UMNS stories #382-#385 - and an additional related report, UMNS #386.
By Linda Green*
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - They came by bus, plane, car and van. They were 9,000 strong. They came to learn about God and reach beyond what they already knew.
United Methodist youth from across the globe took over the campus of the University of Tennessee to participate in Youth '03, the international gathering for young people and youth leaders to grow in faith and learn how to live out their faith daily.
"I see 9,000 angels today," said Bishop Mike Watson of the South Georgia Annual (regional) Conference. "You are children of God and are called to be God's chosen. There is something for you to do. I see in you the glory of God. Are you willing to reach higher to be disciples of God, to let someone see Jesus through you?"
Inspired by the theme "Reach," the youth spent July 23-27 learning how to do that. Through Bible study led by bishops and teens, participants received the key to focusing on Jesus and going higher. "The Scripture is teaching us that it is not the altitude but the attitude that makes a difference and determines how far you'll go," said Bishop Violet Fisher of the North Central New York and Western New York conferences.
Held every four years, the international gathering of United Methodist youth is sponsored by the churchwide Board of Discipleship and provides youth with opportunities to experience God's love and return to their communities ready to do ministry.
Each day of the conference emphasized reaching higher, deeper and further in faith. The young people learned how to go beyond themselves and their immediate communities to help others.
Their communities are far flung. Young people came from the United States, Mexico, Germany, Poland, Kenya, Congo, India, Lithuania, Mozambique, Nigeria and Russia to attend the event. Several people who were expected from countries such as Liberia could not obtain visas for the trip.
Jay Williams, co-chairperson of the denomination's Shared Mission Focus on Young People's initiative, "triple-dog dared" the youth to leave Youth '03 changed.
"What if 10,000 youth were to go back to their local congregation excited and renewed, movers and shakers to change their local communities?" he asked.
Addressing the gathering, he spoke of his work as an advocate to free slaves in many parts of the world and of his most recent efforts to emancipate slaves in the Sudan.
"What if 10,000 youth said slavery must not continue? What if they demanded to be respected and loved, not only tomorrow but today?" He challenged the church to accept all ages, creeds, races and sexual orientations. He spoke of his dream of a church that "does not change with the times but changes the times."
The Rev. Stephen Handy, associate pastor at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., offered three types of "reach" - physical, emotional and spiritual - for the youth to consider in their faith lives.
Physical appearances are a concern for teens, but Handy encouraged the youth not to worry about their "physical reach" because "you cannot improve on what God has created."
Using the biblical story of the woman who bled for 12 years, Handy noted that despite disappointment, frustration and disillusion, the woman found within herself a physical reach that enabled her to touch Jesus' garment and be healed. "Regardless of where you think you are with your looks, God wants to give you favor. God said it is good ... very good."
Focusing on emotional reach, he urged the youth to realize that individually each had the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome their "emotional trippin.'" Too much emotion exists in the world today, he said, and because things are not the way some think they should be, there are more suicides, homicides and gang activity, parent-teenager arguments and fights, stealing, lying and cheating and depression.
"No, you may not like what mama says, what daddy says. But, guess what? Until you own the house, pay the note, buy the car, pay the bills, you don't have anything to say."
Emphasizing the need for spiritual reach, Handy urged the youth to reach for the hem of Jesus' garment, get on their knees and pray. "Regardless of what you are going through, Jesus will be with you."
The four-day gathering included workshops on topics such as the basics of United Methodism and teen issues, as well as recreation and opportunities to do service projects in the community.
Contemporary Christian artists Kirk Franklin and Natalie Grant were two of many featured acts that provided music and witness to Youth '03.
The significance of the event for Roko Nimata'asau, 15, of Centennial United Methodist Church in Sacramento, Calif., came "in learning about the grace of God in our lives and how it impacted other people's lives."
Fourteen-year-old Leah Hrachovy, of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Houston, said she attended the conference to "try to get closer in my relationship to God, to get closer to friends I have and to meet new people."
Wilsar Johnson, 15, of Asbury United Methodist Church in Camden, N.J., also came to meet new people and to "learn more about my religion and get close to God." Reflecting on the conference theme, she said: "For me it meant that you can reach to do anything in the world. You can believe in your opinions and be open about them." # # # *Green is United Methodist News Service's Nashville, Tenn., news director.