Tens of thousands of Lutheran teenagers have flocked to New Orleans this week not merely for worship and fellowship, but for building hope and promoting justice.
During the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Youth Gathering, about 12,000 young people are being loaded onto buses and taken to service projects all across the New Orleans metropolitan area each day.
Their theme is "Jesus, Justice, Jazz," drawn from the history and culture of the city.
"The ELCA's choice of New Orleans was very intentional as a place where our young people can learn the Christian value of compassionate justice," said Heidi Hagstrom, director for the youth gathering, according to the ELCA News Service. "We know that by choosing to hold the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering among the people of New Orleans we will be richly blessed by their experiences of God's embrace during hard times, and we hope to embody the church's commitment to stand with them for as long as it takes."
Each of the 37,000 attendees (most of whom are young people) at the July 22-26 gathering have paid their own way to a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina to work on about 150 community service projects – which include cleaning up neighborhoods, painting schools, rebuilding homes and running day camps.
By the end of the event, they will have clocked more than 250,000 hours of community service.
The youths' visiting and enlisting the services of more than 70 hotels and 300 buses is also proving to be an added bonus to the city especially in the midst of an economic downturn.
The city has warmly welcomed the young Christians with banners lining the streets and a billboard reading "We're Jazzed You're Here!"
The New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau said this is one of the largest conventions the city has ever hosted, according to WWLTV.
ELCA youth gatherings are held once every three years. The 2006 event also included service projects, such as reading with children at the Boys and Girls Club and serving food at food banks. But this year's gathering is said to be even bigger.
"We have done some research and have determined, to the best of our ability, that the ELCA's service effort in New Orleans is likely to be the largest servant ministry ever attempted in a three-day period of time," said Hagstrom.
In addition to plenty of volunteer work, Lutheran youths are engaging in worship, Bible study, learning and prayer.