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Jul 03, 2019 | The Rev. Ashley Cook

“Why would youth need renewal?”

Someone asked me this question a few years ago as I mused out loud
about serving a term as spiritual director for a Diocesan program known as “Happening,” a youth-lead movement that meets four weekends a year at Camp Allen in Navasota.

Founded in the Diocese of Dallas in the 1970s, Happening is now a nationwide movement, originally modeled as a youth version of Cursillo. Cursillo is a program designed to help adults understand their calling to the leaders in the Church. Participants attend an introductory weekend, with opportunities to serve on staff for subsequent retreats. For many adults, Cursillo is experienced as a weekend of spiritual renewal, where lifelong friendships and spiritual communities are formed.

The intent of Happening was for youth to have the opportunity to encounter Christ in the midst of an intentional Christian community of youth leaders, with support from adult lay and clergy volunteers. And that does happen. But in the Diocese of Texas, something else has started happening as well – evangelism!

In the past two years, there have been three teens baptized into the Faith, and numerous other youth attendees (knowns as “happeners”) previously unchurched, who have been connected to faith communities and parish youth groups in their areas. In addition, some parish youth in the Diocese encounter their first sense of a call to ordained ministry at a Happening weekend, while others discover their first call to lay leadership in the Church. For most all youth attending, and adult volunteers as well, there is a strong sense that something holy and exceptional is taking place in the Happening community.

“It’s the vibrancy of an almost entirely youth-lead ministry,” said Stephanie Townes, Diocesan Youth Event Coordinator and Mission Amplification Assistant.

While some youth do experience a renewal of their faith, for most is it more like a jumpstart of their faith, and an opportunity to explore leadership in the Church, she said.

“Over and over I hear they have community (through Happening), sometimes in a way that they can’t get enough of in the parish,” Townes said. “It’s totally their experience of evangelism, God, and the Church, where they go back and want to share it with their friends and the rest of the world.”

Abby Strickland, 18, who just graduated high school and is looking forward to her freshman year of college, said Happening is where she developed her faith, learning something new each weekend, including at her first Happening, and staffing multiple times, including once as rector, the top student leader of a weekend.

“I discovered my leadership and servant gifts and learned to listen closely to God’s call,” Strickland said. “I found mentors and was able to be one as well. Happening changed my life and will always be an important part of my spiritual story.”

Strickland said in the Happening community she was able to make new friends and reconnect with old ones, and now she has a community that is like family.

Matt Ruka, who just completed his freshman year at Blinn College, heard about Happening through summer camp at Camp Allen. He attended his first Happening weekend in September 2016.

“I had a home church, but I didn’t go regularly at the time,” Ruka said.

Having volunteered at a number of weekends since then, it is the community of welcoming and friendly people that drew him to Happening, he said, and the growth in Christ he found through the community experience that helped him realize he has a call to work with youth at camp.

“I have a call. I’d like to keep working with kids at camp and keep helping them find the love of God, and that God is really here, and that he’s really looking out for kids,” Ruka said.

Happening community lasts well beyond the initial weekend.

“The friendships I’ve have really lasted the last three years, and I don’t see them going away any time soon,” Ruka said. “The people I’ve met are so incredible.”

The Rev. Kristin Sullivan, Happening Director, said she finds inspiration in working with youth at Happening. And not just for herself.

“I wish I could bottle this up and show (other Episcopalians) that the Church is alive and thriving in these youth,” Sullivan said, to closing worship service attendees gathered at a Fall 2018 Happening Baptism.

More information on Happening in the Diocese of Texas is available online at www.epicenter.org/happening/. The Rev. Ashley Cook is a college missioner at Stephen F. Austin State University, and community education director at a non-profit Children’s Advocacy Center.

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