Young Episcopalians will be among nearly 1,200 college and university students attending an ecumenical leadership conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, December 28, 2006 - January 1, 2007.
Meeting under the theme "Celebrate! At the River: Waters of Faith…Deltas of Change" at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, participants will join with others to share their faith and to understand better their call as Jesus’ followers in times of crisis, distress and injustice.
Planning for the fifth Celebrate gathering began two years ago with a team of 12 students.
"It was meetings, meetings and more meetings," said Alexandra Sutton, a member of the Episcopal Student Leadership Team (ESLT), whose main charge was to design and facilitate the gathering of Episcopal students at Celebrate. "We would try to do a lot of individual work during the school year and then come together a few times a year to just touch base, make decisions, and talk about what needed to be done."
Sutton, 20, a sophomore at Howard University and a member of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Baltimore, Maryland, said the experience had really pushed her “to grow in my love of God and my fellow Christians. Ecumenical work is always a challenge, but seeing how people can come together to overcome their differences in the pursuit of one goal is an incredible spiritual experience."
The Rev. Douglas Fenton, staff officer for the Episcopal Church’s Office of Young Adult and Higher Educational Ministries, said the students decided to hold the event in New Orleans well before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
"New Orleans was chosen because we were going to talk about baptism," he said. "Hence the theme, the students were going to take a river boat and talk about the one thing that we hold in common as a place where it sort of empties out into the Gulf."
The theme, he said, remained unchanged because "it is this life-giving water that caused a lot of the destruction, but it is also the life that gives back life in terms of our baptism."
"So that image is what we recovered from where we began and why we are very intentional about using people and resources from New Orleans during the conference," said Fenton. "Opening night will be with a jazz orchestra led by Irvin Mayfield who will not only conduct but speak to us."
Mayfield, 29, was born in New Orleans. He is the founder and artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Inc., the only major jazz performance institution of its kind in the city. He was unanimously appointed to the post of Cultural Ambassador for the City of New Orleans by city officials.
Mayfield and the orchestra made history on November 17, 2005 when they symbolically reopened New Orleans with the performance of "All the Saints," composed by Mayfield and commissioned by the Diocese of Louisiana’s Christ Church Cathedral. In honoring his late father, a victim of drowning during Hurricane Katrina, Mayfield has dedicated himself to promoting the unique New Orleans jazz music heritage that lives today.
"[Mayfield] is a passionate speaker about the importance of the city particularity from the aspect of jazz and how jazz represents not only a small portion of the culture of this city but it really represents America's contribution to the culture of the world," said the Rev. David duPlantier, dean of Christ Church Cathedral.
The conference’s opening day, described as a day of "music and stories," will welcome an ecumenical, interracial choir called Shades of Praise.
Blending voices, cultures and faiths, Shades of Praise is a high-energy gospel choir, performing contemporary praise and worship music in the African American tradition. Audience members are encouraged to participate in their concerts. They were nominated for the 2004 Big Easy Award in the Best Gospel Choir Category and are currently featured in the WWL TV Spirit of Louisiana promotion.
"This choir not only performs around the city and around the region to great acclaim but also sees as their mission in the healing of some of the historic racial wounds and divisions," said duPlantier. "They tell their individual stories of not only race reconciliation but in this case, post Katrina stories of how the storm and its aftermath have affected their faith and the city."
Conference participants, duPlantier explained, will experience "our culture as it is articulated in music" which is very different to the concept of music as "simply a vehicle for entertainment."
Fenton said the conference location will also serve as a catalyst for service work. He said the team reached out to duPlantier and Archdeacon Dennis McManis, operations director of the Diocese of Louisiana's Office of Disaster Response for guidance.
"It seemed like a tremendous opportunity not only for the young people but also for our city," said duPlantier. "I pointed out to them that a year and a half after the storm, a city in our condition could really significantly benefit from the participation of the young people, even briefly, in the volunteer labor force. So I encouraged them to spend as little time as possible inside the hotel meeting room and try to spend every possible moment experiencing the rich aspects of the city."
McManis said that the opportunities to volunteer were ample and suggested several programs that would benefit by their presence and in turn would enrich their lives.
"One of our programs is a house gutting crew where we have gutted 400 homes to date," he said. "This effort is led by four interns, a home owner coordinator and a program manager. This is quite an experience because the volunteers get to meet the family making it more than just gutting a house. It becomes pastoral ministry."
He said there is also a respite RV that goes out into the lower Ninth Ward and distributes water, paper goods, and cleaning supplies to approximately 250 people per day. However, the real ministry, said McManis, is one of "pastoral listening."
"We also have a mobile medical unit staffed with doctors, nurses and mental health care people that goes to three or four locations in the city," he said. "The students could help do in-take."
Two feeding ministries could provide other areas for volunteering.
"One is a mobile unit that goes out in the city and serves 150 people per day, and the other is in one of our churches that operates a café twice a week," said McManis. "Students could help serve the meals."
McManis said that it is important to get involved because "we say that we are in the business of transformation" and as we help transform the lives of the people coming back, "we're also transforming community and find that we are also transformed."
"I hope that participants will gain an appreciation for the unique perspective that each denomination has and can bring to the table," said Sutton. "Everyone does things differently, and I think those differences have immense value. There are so many ways to walk to God, so many different paths and disciplines and ideologies, and I hope that our participants will be able to appreciate and understand the glory of the spectrum."
"I think that these gatherings help young adults feel apart of this thing that is bigger then their own experience," said Fenton. "It connects them with other students so I think it is a beginning place for this church-wide family to take root. I think if they even get a small glimpse of how the whole church could look and find a way to imagine how the whole Christian church can do something together, from worship to service to prayer to learning and taking action on behalf of people who in this instance are dispossessed and left off, then I think we have accomplished a huge task."
Celebrate! is sponsored by the Council for Ecumenical Student Christian Ministries (CESCM), and the National Catholic Student Coalition. CESCM is composed of one denominational staff and two college/university students from participating denominations, including the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ.
For more information and to register visit: http://www.cescm.org/Celebrate06