Worshipping with more than a thousand other young people, visiting the Oklahoma City National Memorial and glimpsing a wider vision of the church, felt “awesome” for Southland youth attending the Episcopal Youth Event (EYE).
“They did a great job of showing us the spirit of the Episcopal Church, but also gave us a good history of it,” according to Jordyn Yokoyama, 18, a parishioner of St. Mary’s Church in Los Angeles.
“It made me want to be more involved with my own church; it was so great to meet all the other students from across the country,” added Yokayama. She was one of six Los Angeles youth and three adults who attended the triennial event, held July 10 – 14 at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.
Wylie Greeson, 17, of St. Patrick’s, Thousand Oaks, said he continues to Snapchat and text with new EYE friends in the dioceses of Atlanta, Arkansas and the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.
“When you’re in your own diocese, it’s hard to imagine all the rest, how many there are,” he told The Episcopal News. “It was also nice to see the differences in tradition.”
Some 1,400 youth, clergy, workshop leaders and other participants from 90 of the church’s 109 dioceses attended the gathering, designed by and for youth leaders across the Episcopal Church.
Themed “Path to Peace,” it included worship, workshops and plenary sessions and a tour of Oklahoma City. Noticeably absent were youth from Province IX, the Latin-American and Caribbean-based dioceses, who were denied visas into the United States.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry served as preacher at the opening Eucharist and led a ‘Jesus Movement’ praxis session; President of the House of Deputies Gay Jennings addressed church polity and governance. Other workshop topics ranged from advocacy to nonviolent communication in a violent world to racial reconciliation.
What Earyll Longid, 14, of Holy Trinity and St. Benedict Church in Alhambra “loved most about it was that the youth were able to come together with the same faith and connect through that.”
An especially meaningful moment happened for her during the July 12 candlelight vigil held outside the memorial. It honors victims of the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building. Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government terrorist, was convicted in connection with the bombing and was executed in 2001.
“That place was once broken up and it was in a bad state, but then everybody came together and it ended up being so beautiful,” she said. “A lot of things are happening in the world at the moment and it felt like this event taught us how we could be the change, how we could treat the world, or change the world into a better place.”
The night before the visit to the memorial, bombing survivors had shared their personal experiences with the youth.
Oklahoma Bishop Ed Konieczny told Episcopal News Service (ENS) that he wanted the youth to experience the power of the memorial. The bombing, he said, brought together the people of Oklahoma in a spirit of unity, in what became the “Oklahoma Standard” that continues today.
Responding to violence and hatred with love was packed into the Path to Peace message.
“The reality is that hatred doesn’t work and violence doesn’t work,” said Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at the site of the memorial. “Human beings were made by love, because I believe that God is love, and we were made to love and life only works when we love. And this memorial is a painful reminder that hatred hurts and harms, and we weren’t made for that.”
“We’ve been put on this earth to find a better way. To find life and love for everybody, and so coming to this memorial and being here this day is an opportunity to be reconsecrated and rededicated to creating a world where love rules.”
For youth leaders Parker Garrett and Gabe Vazquez-Reyes, scheduled stops at the memorial felt far too brief, so the Los Angeles delegation returned for their own, for a longer visit, and additional conversation.
Garrett, 27, children’s, youth and family ministries director at St. Mark’s, Altadena, said that while exciting, energizing, and amazing in many ways, the event disappointed in others.
“It’s exciting to be in a room with thousands of youth workers and youth, doing worship, it’s energizing. It was amazing to have bishops and priests interacting with youth for the entire event yet, … some of the plenaries fell a little flat.”
And while acknowledging that scheduling for more than a thousand youth can be a logistical challenge, she felt shortchanged at the visit to the memorial. “It takes about two hours to get through and we had to power walk through it,” she recalled. “It was our last stop and there was no time built in to talk to our group and process the experience.”
Vazquez-Reyes, 32, youth minister at the Church of Our Saviour in San Gabriel, agreed. “While spending a whole day in Oklahoma City was cool, they rushed us through a very heart-wrenching experience.”
Luckily, the group had a late flight back to Los Angeles their last day “so we went back. It’s extraordinarily interactive and you walk this timeline, from the early morning, to the moment that the bomb goes off.”
Revisiting the memorial, which is filled with the victims’ artifacts, photos and other memorabilia, “became like walking a labyrinth,” Vazquez-Reyes said. “Watching these things, it brought me to tears several times. There were so many photos of toys, little baby’s toys … we really wanted to make it so that we could take as much time as we needed to sit there and be with that experience in that place.
“And there’s this field with 168 chairs that we walked through. These chairs represent each person killed there. We did a very slow-paced walk around it. We wanted to sit with it.”
Longid said she felt “a deeper connection” to the memorial. “I really understood how this event really did change us and how, even though it was something horrible, it made us stronger as a nation, as we came together to solve our problems.”
Jade Ortiz, 34, youth director at All Saints, Oxnard, said it was amazing to hear the firsthand accounts of the bombing survivors and first responders, especially because in times of escalating violence, it often is tempting to just numb one’s self to it.
She said that two All Saints youth, Adriana Salas, 15, and Karla Lopez, 16, also thoroughly enjoyed the experience, including the memorial. “They were truly amazed by the coming together of the city of Oklahoma when something so horrible had happened to all of them.”
“A touching moment for all of us was Karla’s questions about youth ministry,” Ortiz said. “She is considering youth ministry in the future and hopes to be a leader for the next EYE so she can also lead other youth to have a similar experience.”
Salas, in a Snapchat message, told the Episcopal News that she loved meeting new people and learning about other dioceses.
“Even today I still keep in touch with two girls, one from Florida and the other from South Carolina,” she wrote in the message. “I really got out of my comfort zone and learned new ways I can communicate with others.
“Another part I really enjoyed were the worship,” Salas said. “We were all involved and the participation was great.”
For Vazquez-Reyes, EYE felt both awesome and frustrating. “I came back with a sense of, we need to do this better and how can I get involved to make it better,” he said.
For example, “I loved the amount of access students got to ordained clergy. There were lots of priests all over the place in plain clothes hanging out with students and bishops from all around the country. That was really beautiful.
“And the other thing, the worship services were by large part led by youth, and that was really cool.”
Yet plenaries focused on peacemaking “didn’t give a whole lot of scaffolding to get us to how we can actually do it,” he said. And a luncheon hosted for youth of color felt “divisive” among the larger group, he said. “I don’t like being divisive, especially among students when we are actively as a church always talking about reconciliation.
“I kept referring back all week to Bishop Diane’s sermon at our last diocesan convention, that multicultural ministry is not outreach, it is just ministry.”
The EYE mission planning team began working on the event 18 months ago, based on Matthew’s Gospel and the Beatitudes, according to Bronwyn Clark Skov, the Episcopal Church’s director of formation, youth and young adults, who oversees youth ministry.
“We are very much taken with that entire package, but also because of what has been happening in the world, we really honed in on ‘blessed are the peacemakers,’” she said.
The triennial youth event, a mandate of the church’s General Convention, drew 1,400 people in all, including 35 bishops, as well as chaperones, chaplains, medical and other volunteers. Every preacher, speaker, exhibitor and praxis session presented the conference theme in one way or another.
Plans for EYE20 are underway, and with the help of a Constable Fund grant, the Episcopal Church plans to hold the event in Latin America.
— The Episcopal News Service contributed to this report.