By Susan Fawcett
We have just barely gotten into the swing of October, and yet I have December on the brain. Why? I get to go to this year’s Winterlight Conference at Kanuga as a member of the clergy/chaplain staff. Being from the Diocese of Virginia, I had no idea that Winterlight existed until I met some folks from North Carolina in seminary, and now, lo and behold, I get to go spend the week after Christmas with a whole bunch of good people in a beautiful place. Woohoo!
For those of you who have never been to a youth conference of the Episcopal variety, here is a snapshot of what you might do if you were a youth participant: lots of genuinely good live and interactive music, small group discussions and games and initiatives*, meeting new people, eating ridiculously, staying up late and being silly, going to workshops on anything from swing dance to sexuality to stargazing, some sort of outdoorsy hiking experience, an interesting speaker who makes you think about God and the world and yourself in a different way. Also, worship/prayer/bible study with your peers that is somehow more vibrant and meaningful when you find yourself in a room full of 200 high schoolers (as opposed to adults). And, most of these events include a dance (often with hysterical/creative thrift-store outfits), a talent show, and some sort of rite-of-passage ceremony for seniors who won’t be able to come back until they can be counselors. Realizing that there is life and a whole wide world beyond the more depressing aspects of high school and high school relationships, and that that other kind of life calls something new and different out of you. Calls you to be yourself in the way God sees you–the kind of self that you’d be proud to be, and want to share.
(*’initiative’ is code for a group-building or leadership-development activity. Think of the low-ropes courses that some corporate teams do on retreats. Think of the trust-walk, trust-fall, etc.)
If you are an adult at these functions, you might find yourself doing things along these lines: participating in or leading any of the above activities, doing behind-the-scenes set up work, coaching some other young person as they lead the above activities, taking someone to the ER, coaching other adults through various aspects of the weekend, sitting still while everyone else moves about so that you can observe the tenor of the conference, troubleshooting behavior issues, eating lunch with young people who remind you of your own dreams and hopes and fears, eating dinner with young people who have fallen in love with the new community they have found, and eating breakfast with a young person who really needs his meds. And staff meetings after lights-out, where you get to debrief what has gone well and what we can do better next time, how you have been so thankful to have worked with each particular new colleague, and some very silly regression, thanks to utter exhaustion. Wonder why you thought it was a good idea to spend the whole weekend running in circles just to go back to a full plate at your real job. Wonder why these teenagers forgive your squareness and talk to you anyway. Wonder why your real job seems somewhat pale and dry in comparison to this sort of (insane, beautiful) Real Life.
There are all kinds of events along these lines, all over the Episcopal Church. Each has its idiosyncrasies and particular culture. And each has devotees, youth who have been in church their whole lives, and youth who may not darken the door of a parish sanctuary for many many years. Adults who have found themselves changed and challenged. Clergy who thought they were getting a respite weekend away from the parish, and who come back because they find themselves re-energized by the chaos of youth events. These communities are the Church in their own way. A youth event is not a parish, and yet for some people, ongoing events like Winterlight and diocesan summer camps offer a primary worshipping community. I reiterate: there are plenty of Episcopalians who would not be so were it not for the experiences they had at camps or youth events.
Point made. Now, to find a good thrift store…
The Rev. Susan Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.