Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Urbana 2009, St. Louis, Missouri

Every three years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (along with their Canadian counterpart) holds a a conference called "Urbana", because it used to meet at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Those facilities, however, became too small, and so it has met in St. Louis Missouri since 2006. It takes place from December 27th to just after midnight on January 1st, and its attendance is somewhere around 18,000 people, I think. It's aimed at college students, but seniors in high school and post-college folks have been known to attend as well. It features a whole of speakers and is focused on what Christians call "missions", the preaching of the Gospel everywhere.

When I went to Urbana 06, I didn't have a reason to go, just that everyone said it was cool. People said I should probably have some reason, but I didn't ever figure that out, try though I did. All the promotional material about Urbana said "YOU HAVE A CALLING", like if we came to Urbana maybe God would reach down his mighty hand and give us some special revelation concerning his intentions for our future and what we should do. I was pretty cynical about it. I didn't go to very interesting seminars, but I did like some of the talks that people gave. Every morning included a sermon, more or less, which in tandem with Bible Studies (small groups of 2,000), worked through Ephesians, and I really liked those, but I can't remember what I learned. There are a few memories that stick out, like hearing an African pastor challenging our Western-centric views, making fun of Rick Warren and skipping Bible Study to see the St. Louis Arch, because Inductive Bible Study with 2,000 people really wasn't working. There was a big room full of representatives from "Missions Organizations", and it felt too much like a college-fair, like they were trying to sell their organization to you, and I was so sure that that wasn't how God works. After Urbana, Ryan and I got a reputation with the IV Staff in the area as being "the guys who didn't like Urbana", which is apparently a rare condition.

When people started talking about Urbana 09, I had mixed feelings. I wanted to give Urbana a second chance, because people who I trust think Urbana is really great. I had given my 2006 experience a lot of thought, but that's not the same as reaching a conclusion. Additionally, I wouldn't be a student anymore (having graduated in May 09) and, as December approached, it was looking more and more likely like I wouldn't be employed by then either, which was great for having the time for Urbana, but not great for having the money for it. One Thursday night, and I don't remember the reasons why, I found myself back at IV's Large Group meeting at UMBC, despite being an alum. Bethanie was speaking, and she told us about how her experiences doing the Baltimore Urban Program, a sort of missions trip experience thing during the Summer, had convinced her that cynicism is a sin. I'm not so sure it's a sin, but she got me thinking.

Eventually, I did decide to go. In order to save money, Mike German and I didn't get a hotel room, but instead found a host on We didn't pay for a seat on a bus, but instead, along with two others, drove. We didn't buy much food from restaurants while in St. Louis, but instead purchased our meals (excluding Urbana-provided dinners) from a local grocery store chain called Schnucks, a plan we ultimately turned into a UMBC-&-friends "Lunch Collective". We drove downtown from our host's house every day and parked for free at a casino near the convention center. Thanks to some help from my church and our money-saving efforts, the money worked out fine.

I have to at least mention the journey. Julian, as an IV Staff Intern, had to be in St. Louis by 2pm on December 26th, a day before the conference started. Thus, we left Baltimore at 11pm on Christmas Day, and drove all night long. The morning of the 26th, a Saturday, we found ourselves lost in the snowy streets of Indianapolis, trying, with the help of Mike Weber's family's GPS, to find a diner recommended by someone on Couchsurfing, a search which ultimately led to what seemed at the time to be the funniest breakfast ever. We listened to the entirety of Sufjan Stevens' "Illinois" while in Illinois. I am not sure I recommend the all-night-driving method, but it worked out. Because we got there a day early, we got to go to church on Sunday morning at New City Fellowship, which has a lot of connections with IV and felt a lot like Newsong in Baltimore.

Part of living and traveling with Mike was my desire to get a little bit of what I called "The Mike German Experience", which is how I found myself sitting in a parking lot in Mike's car in the cold of December, eating tuna fish out of a bag after having the free beer at the end of the free tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. I was consistently skeptical of Mike's plans, particularly when he invited a Canadian he had just met who had no where to stay, to come back to our host's place. I was right to insist we check with our host first, but even after that I was skeptical, yet Joe turned out to be a great friend that week. Thanks to my upbringing, I was never truly comfortable with our daily walks through the casino from the parking garage, but that free parking was a great thing. I was out of my comfort zone, and it was probably good for me.

Urbana opened with a dance performance, accompanied by a spoken-word piece based on John 1. Jesus, the Word, was portrayed as a dancer, calling the universe into being with tap, then forming humans who danced as he did, then sad as they turned to a new, uglier sort of march. John the Baptizer made an appearance as a hip-hop artist, loudly proclaiming Christ's arrival, and Jesus then got to work teaching those who would learn to dance with him. I had seen dance and various other arts used in worship before, but I hadn't seen them used so well before. It just worked.

The two biggest ideas I had for making Urbana 09 a potentially better experience were not being cynical and having a list of goals. One of the biggest goals on that list was to go into the big room of organizations, willing to hear out the people from the organizations, instead of just deciding the room was terrible. I went in, I walked around, I didn't really talk to anyone, and I left. This time though, I realized that that room is useful to some people. Some people really can find what they're going to do with their summer or even their lives by talking to people in booths. I am not one of those people, but I should not write off that whole method of communication as being a bad idea.

I tried hard to make sure I went to good seminars, this time. I heard someone talk about The Church and Homosexuality, and how Christians are doing a terrible job loving people who don't identify with heteronormative values. She didn't really have answers on what we should do, but it was good to hear and see other people who are concerned about this, maybe even ones who aren't Derek Webb fans. I heard a panel of members of various New Monasticism communities talk about their struggles and desires. During the Q&A time, someone asked about their style of ministry in non-urban contexts, and the panelists had nothing to say, no experience from which to comment, thus checking off another one of my goals. I heard a man talk about moving his wife and kids to Darfur, Sudan, while various Missions Organizations have policies that their workers can visit Darfur for a day maybe sometimes, but certainly not live there, much less bringing their families along. He talked about preaching to a gathering of village chiefs, and about confronting warlords. His talk scared me, because I thought "What if that is me, someday?", but he closed by saying "Please don't think there's anything special about me. I am just like you. It's God doing the work." I had two separate opportunities to hear John Perkins, one of the founders of the Christian Community Development Association, speak, and one of those was in tandem with Shane Claiborne. Perkins is 80 years old, and it was really good to hear his wisdom, even if he does ramble on and on sometimes. The second time I heard him, a lot of people showed up to hear Shane Claiborne, but Perkins did most of the talking. I think it was good for them.

The last night, sitting in the big stadium listening to Brenda Salter-McNeil preach, a guy three rows in front of us came back to his seat with a box of pizza. He took a little bit (It was cut into small squares), then passed it on. Soon, there were many of us eating pizza. Elise took out a cookie, Smitty took out Peanut Butter Crackers, and those were shared too. Kathy, who's IV Staff in Baltimore, said "I think we just had communion." and I agreed. A little while later, I took communion, bread and wine, offered by the aforementioned Brenda Salter-McNeil, a woman now wearing white vestments. The German missionary in Darfur told us to think of the darkest place we could, and then go there, because God is with you, so you have no reason not to. People talked about hard problems without presenting answers, and that was okay, because Jesus is in control. Native Americans danced in ways that made no sense to me, but they said they were worshiping the one, true God who made all things. Mike invited a man we'd just met to come live with us for a week, because he had nowhere else to go. All these surprised me and scared me, because I agreed with them.

The drive back from St. Louis was similar, but we had Kaylyn with us now, and it was daytime when we started. We bought donuts at a gas station in Illinois, even though we had breakfast already. We ate at Steak 'n' Shake, and it was just as good as Robert Ebert said it would be. We saw the great flat places on Indiana, where you can just see forever 'til the world curves away. Instead of going back to Baltimore, though, they dropped me off in Ligonier, at Camp, for the Staff Reunion. It was like leaving a giant family reunion and going to a different one, and while there I had a long talk with people about figuring out life and where we want to go and do. I still haven't figured out all the meaning, implications and applications of my experience at Urbana, but I'm glad I wasn't cynical.

Footage hosted by Vimeo.

Footage hosted by Vimeo.


Katie Jones said...

I have a similar struggle being cynical about events like this. I can see how cynicism is a sin in the sense that it causes me to feel disconnected from fellow believers. It leads me into doubting that I can actually fit into Christianity because I can't bring myself to conform to the mass Christian culture most of the time. I realize none of this is true, but the more cynical I am toward the practices of so many Christians, the easier it is for the devil to get a foothold and spiral me into doubt. I'm glad you came to the place of accepting the differences and not letting your judgments skew your perception of Christianity as a whole. It's a weird thing to separate Christianity from actually being a Christian.

two-bit jeremiah said...

This post gave me a lot of good food for thought. Thanks for sharing it; I'm going to be chewing over your observations about cynicism and stepping outside your comfort zone for a while.

Also, you reminded me that exists, which is the sort of thing that might come in handy sometime in the unforeseeable future.

Timothy S. Milligan said...

.org , Les, but yes. It's useful. Let me know when you get it, so I can say "Oh yes, she's cool."

Alex said...

I like your description of the "Mike German Experience"