Embracing the reality

Heidi Hagstrom

This month I am going to share the most important piece of advice I have for primary adult leaders regarding the Gathering. Here it is: Let reality shape your expectations.

That's it. I am suggesting that you get a clear understanding of Detroit, your youth, their parents, your adult leaders and the Gathering. Let that truth shape your expectations of what the Gathering can be and will be.

Why is this so important for a successful Gathering experience? Let me share a particular topic where realistic expectations and desire can lead to two different experiences.

Housing. If every congregational group desires an assignment to a four-star hotel with a one-star price located directly across the street from the main venue with all double-double rooms, every congregational group will be disappointed. No such property exists and no one will get all double-doubles.

Still, housing is an issue for every Gathering I have worked on since 2000, because there is this expectation out there that if a person asks loudly enough, reality will change to suit what that person desires. It won't. However, it will create anxiety for the adult leader who wishes that a situation is something other than what it is.

On the other hand, by accepting the truth of the Detroit landscape — rather than resisting it or labeling it negatively — we are less likely to let it get in the way of young people's deepening discipleship through the ministry of the Gathering. In fact, we can use it to catapult ourselves farther into the community that God has been building in Detroit for more than 300 years.

So, the question is:
Why aren't there more hotels in downtown Detroit?

In the late 1960s, racial tensions engulfed parts of our country at the cost of lost lives and abject destruction. The 1969 Detroit race riots were the worst race riots our country had seen. As a result of the racial tensions and assisted by the affordability of cars, the white middle class sold or abandoned their homes in diverse neighborhoods and fled to the suburbs. (By the way, Lutheran congregations also left the city!) This mass exodus was dubbed "white flight," and eventually resulted in a wholesale abandonment of the city by white people. "White flight" created economic chaos that can be seen in the architecture of Detroit. The metro area's hospitality infrastructure grew up in the suburbs and around the airport, leaving Detroit proper lacking in amenities.

The term "white flight" has become less common in recent years, and young people coming to the Gathering may not even know the meaning of the term. It is, however, one of the touch points uniquely available to us in Detroit, a touch point that young people can ponder alongside the Gospel of Mark (the text for the Gathering) and their daily realities.

They may not know about the 1960-70s phenomenon called "white flight," but I bet they are familiar with the fear and sometimes outright racial prejudice that destroys many cities around the world today. A recent poll conducted by MTV, yes MTV, found that Millenials have a hard time talking about race and discrimination.

I want to encourage you to talk with your young people about this part of Detroit's history and ponder together how knowing that story will impact your experience of Detroit next summer. Perhaps start a conversation on the bus as you travel from your hotel to Cobo.

Here are some starter questions you can use:

  • Is there any situation in the world today that is similar?
  • Are there situations today in which we are conditioned to hate rather than love, to separate rather than unite, to hurt rather than heal?
  • What are the implications for people of faith? How are we, or are we, responsible to change those situations? If so, how can we accomplish change?

I think Mark's Gospel provides guidance for us in situations where embracing reality is difficult or uncomfortable. In chapter 10 verse 32 we find the disciples "on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid."

This was a turning point in Mark's Gospel as Jesus begins to go toward Jerusalem. We can imagine how confused the disciples must have been when Jesus explained that this new path would lead ultimately to his death and resurrection. Even though they were puzzled and confused, the disciples continued to follow Jesus on this unfamiliar route with an undesirable ending. How would you respond in a similar situation?

When we dig into the Gospel of Mark, we'll learn that the disciples follow Jesus throughout the story, listen to all of Jesus' unconventional teachings and witness Jesus' miraculous acts. They vow never to leave Jesus' side (Mark 14:27-29).

We will also learn that in the end the reality is they can't keep their vow. Every single one of them ends up fleeing at Jesus's arrest. Peter, the most impressive of the disciples, denies three times that he knows Jesus (Mark 14:62-72). One of the disciples escapes in the nude when he barely evades the grip of a guard by stripping off his cloak (Mark 14:50-52). Even when facing the reality of the resurrection, the disciples flee in "terror and amazement" after seeing the empty tomb, saying "nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (Mark 16:8)

Could we call that "disciple flight"?

Will we leave Detroit and say "nothing to anyone" about the historic and systemic injustices that have contributed to the breaking down of a once grand city? Will we continue to flee from the hard conversations about race and discrimination? Will all we share be the moments of escape into gaming and pageantry? Hopefully not.

Hopefully, with the conviction of our faith and the support of our faith community, we will be encouraged to steer into the hard conversations about what is real rather than flee from them. Hopefully we will be encouraged to follow Jesus on the way of the cross, and as we walk that path with Jesus and others we will join hands to Rise Up Together.