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Dancing in the Streets: A Detroit Recap

Calling out around the world,

are you ready for a brand new beat?

Summer’s here and the time is right

for dancing in the street...

- Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, 1964

+ + +

In one of the pre-gathering videos, “Detroit Invites Us,” youth from Detroit stated bluntly: “We don’t need you to save us - God’s got that covered. What we want, with all our hearts, is for you to stand with us, and kneel, and stoop, and lift, and build, and dance with us.”

I had no idea just how fully our youth would heed that call.

From our first day, when we danced our way through Hitsville USA at the Motown Museum, to dancing on stage in the auditorium at Wayne State University during the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, to dancing with youth from the Definitely Abled Youth Leadership Event on a boat cruise along the Detroit River, to dancing in the hallways of the Cobo Center with our new friend Nathaly from El Salvador, to dancing with thousands of Lutheran youth from across the country while waiting in Hart Plaza for our service project day, a sea of orange t-shirts making God’s work the most joyful, danceable thing imaginable.

“My biggest surprise,” one of our youth wrote afterward, “was that the event was actually fun. I’m not gonna lie, I expected it to be really boring and very strict but it was the total opposite.”

Of course, dancing isn’t always the easiest thing to do. You make yourself vulnerable. You put yourself out there. You step outside of your everyday movements, your everyday comfort zone.

This, too, was a part of our experience. Each of our youth went to Detroit with specific goals of their own, ways they wanted to stretch themselves, to step outside of their normal comfort zones, to step out of the place they called home and into the streets of the wider world. And each of them did.

Over the course of the week, one who was usually quiet stepped up to the microphone and sang in front of hundreds of her peers, their hands swaying with her words and joining in on the beat. One who was our resident social butterfly, always outgoing, opened up to share a story of her inner life for the first time, bringing us all to tears and a group hug. One who had honed her social skills at school was able to put them into practice in a church community as never before, pulling neighbors and new friends into dances, games, and conversations, making sure that no one got left out. And one who was worried about shrinking back in the midst of so many people took the stage in front of a massive auditorium, found her voice, and claimed her contested identity as a multiracial child of God.

For us, the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, the pre-gathering event for youth of color within our church, was vital. In the middle of the week, one of our adult leaders tossed a small black iPhone onto a vast white bedspread and said, “This is us within the ELCA.” It was simply a fact. But for three days at MYLE, things were different.

For three days at MYLE, our church was a multicolored kaleidoscope of young people, able, in this relatively safe setting, to talk about issues of race and culture openly, to do experiential learning in neighborhoods that looked like theirs, to stretch themselves and grow as young leaders, and to dance to the music that moved their hearts. It was a vision of what the church could be, and one day, God willing, would be.

It’s an invitation across the nation, a chance for folks to meet. There’ll be laughing, singing, and music swinging - dancing in the street.

As MYLE transitioned to the Gathering, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of teenagers spilling out into the streets in coordinated neon t-shirts. A local Detroit newspaper reported a local resident describing the scene as “like a Skittles factory exploded.”

Reflecting on it afterward, one of our youth wrote, “This week helped me grow in the way I think of the ELCA. Now I know that there are 30,000 youth just like the 4 of us. I feel like we are more than a small church on the corner of Vermont. I think that the ELCA makes a BIG impact in the world.”

And so it was that a half century after Motown issued its call to the world, a new generation flooded the Motor City with a brand new beat, proclaiming the lyrics of their sacred stories, the melody of a massive community, and a bass line of justice for all.

I was the pastor, the so-called primary adult leader, and I led none of this, dear people. My youth taught me the new dances, new lyrics, new melodies, new beats.

In the midst of it all, one of my youth turned to me and said, “Pastor, we need to have a meeting about some changes we need to make at church.”

And my heart was full, full of joy that these young people could see the possibility of change and full of the hard-won knowledge of how difficult that change would be.

But every once in a while, you can drop the needle onto the turntable, and the music of the spheres rises up, the sound of the Spirit moving in our midst, the Spirit that moves from Motown to South Central, sending us out and bringing us home again.

Way down in L.A., every day,

They’re dancing in the street,

Dancing in the street...

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