By Kirk Petersen
In religious circles, one often hears the platitude that children and youth are “the future of the church.” That seems obvious enough, but hundreds of high school students at the 14th triennial Episcopal Youth Event (EYE) heard a very different message in early July.
“We keep saying that youth and young people are our future,” said the Rt. Rev. Deon Johnson, Bishop of Missouri, in the opening plenary session. “Our youth are not the future, our youth are the present. They’re the ones who need to be taking the leadership, they’re the ones who are going to tell us, as a church, where we need to go and how we’re going to get there.”
“I am here to tell you that you belong in the Episcopal Church now,” said Julia Ayala Harris, president of the House of Deputies.
Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry preached on July 6 in his first public appearance since being briefly hospitalized at the end of May for a heart condition. “I’m coming along. Moving a little bit slower, but coming along,” he said with his trademark grin. “I was determined to get here and to be with you.” The exuberance of his half-hour homily seemed undiminished from previous sermons, as he ranged from the Book of Esther to the power of love, as manifested by a reluctant mouse-hunting cat named Muffin.
Esther’s cousin Mordecai, Curry said, “told her one thing: ‘Don’t let anybody know you’re a Jew. Don’t let anybody know.’ He wanted her in the closet. And ain’t nobody supposed to be in the closet.”
Julian Kofoot, 17, from the Diocese of Iowa, told Episcopal News Service it was impressive that such a public, religious figure could make bold statements referring to LGBTQ+ acceptance.
“As a bisexual who’s been scared to come out my whole entire life to literally anybody, that really inspired me,” Kofoot said. “I should be my true, authentic self.”
Roughly 600 young Episcopalians and 200 chaperones gathered July 4-8 on the University of Maryland campus in College Park, representing 108 dioceses and 22 nations or territories — some of them from as far away as Taiwan and Guam. EYE typically is held the year before the General Convention, but like so much else that pattern was disrupted by COVID-19. The 2020 EYE was initially postponed and then canceled as the pandemic gained steam.
In the wake of the cancelation, the church’s Office of Youth Ministries took advantage of the pause to commission a program evaluation, with findings published in September 2021. One key recommendation was the EYE should be more than just a stand-alone event. “Currently, EYE is a distinct pinnacle of the Episcopal youth experience instead of being an integral part of a vision for the Episcopal youth ministry as a whole,” the report said.
TLC asked Myra B. Garnes, who joined the church as officer for youth ministries in 2022, about opportunities for youth now that EYE is over. She responded by email: “The report makes clear we need expanded funding to implement its recommendations, and the Office of Youth Ministries is working with the Office of Development and Executive Council to address that need. Prioritizing funding for this area would mean we could offer a leadership and ministry experience for youth at the 81st General Convention — followed by youth provincial gatherings during the summer of 2025.”
The report also said more needs to be done to improve the reach and diversity of the event. “EYE brings in kids already involved. It targets the inner circle, and is not a welcome mat,” one survey respondent said. Financial inaccessibility was also mentioned multiple times. One person lamented, “How do we go from just having empowered white rich kids?”
Diversity efforts were on full display in College Park, boosted by the fact that the top two officials of the church are a Black man (Curry) and a Latina (Ayala Harris). Bishop Johnson is a gay, Black immigrant from Barbados. The opening worship service was bilingual in English and Spanish, and the worship band included songs by LGBTQ and Latino musicians. (The music had a noticeable lack of century-old hymns with archaic language and forced rhyme schemes.)
Ayala Harris emphasized the opportunities available in the Episcopal Church by describing her own journey in a highly personal way. She told the group she is the youngest person ever to lead the House of Deputies, and the first woman of color to hold the job. Her father is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, and she dropped out of high school after giving birth to a baby boy at the age of 15. “I’m not your typical church leader, right?” she said.
Her mother, a white woman from Minnesota, was the middle child of nine, had three children by the age of 19, and then was institutionalized for schizophrenia. Ayala Harris was raised by her maternal grandparents. Her extended family “had a great tradition of having teen pregnancies and getting married and dropping out of high school,” she said. Ayala Harris stayed single for the time being, graduated with the help of summer school, and placed her son for open adoption. “He lives in the area, I saw him the other day, he’s wonderful. He’s 28 years old,” she said. Her 16-year-old daughter was in the audience.
After being raised as a highly religious Catholic girl and then attending evangelical churches in college, she wandered into an Episcopal service one day on a whim — where she was served Communion by a female priest. “I was blown away. It had never even occurred to me that women could be in leadership in the church,” she said. She fell in love with the Episcopal Church, and never looked back.
She urged the youth to avoid being intimidated by their own insecurities. “God over and over again uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things,” Ayala Harris said. “If you are struggling with dark nights of the soul,” she said, “you belong in the Episcopal Church now. You belong here, and we need you.”