This week, my 13-year-old, Mary, shares her thoughts and reflections on this year’s Pilgrimage, a weekend-long worship extravaganza for United Methodist youths.
I had been looking forward to Pilgrimage 2016 since last year, when I went to Pilgrimage 2015. The youth conference was only for United Methodist youth and was located in Fayetteville, North Carolina at Crown Coliseum. The youth could bring friends, which almost all the youth in my small church youth group did happily last year. We arrived in high spirits and had a joyous time singing and worshipping together with 5,000+ United Methodist youth from all over North Carolina in one place, youth of different colors, languages, and pasts. I learned that we all made “Pilgrimage clothespins,” which were plain, wooden clothespins with inspirational messages on the sides. We would then clip them onto the clothing of other people and merge into the crowd, knowing later they would read it and it would make them smile. Getting clipped was an amazing thing, reading at night encouraging and uplifting messages of hope, love, and God.
This year, I began to count down the days until Pilgrimage 2016. I was excited, as was my entire youth group. This year, we didn’t bring friends and instead of a hotel we stayed in a camp. We were looking forward to arriving at the coliseum for a life-changing experience, as we had last year. I spent half the summer making Pilgrimage clips, painting them in bright colors and putting brilliant life quotes and Bible verses on the sides. My buddy and I passed out a few of our clips Friday night, feeling grand knowing we made people smile.
Saturday morning, again, my buddy and I passed out clips, giving away my remaining twelve. We sat down, ready for the hope of an amazing second session of Pilgrimage. Instead, we were told that if we had a Pilgrimage clip on our being we would be immediately sent home. The speaker of this year’s Pilgrimage sessions dished out hate at the clips. Everyone was told to throw away their clips at the trashcans near the entrances; whether or not everyone did and instead risked their time pocketing the clips, I don’t know.
That evening, when we arrived at the coliseum, the cheerful atmosphere was missing from the entire building. Everyone was more subdued than normal, not much chattering was going on, everyone in almost a thoughtful silence. Passing out those clips was tradition, and in fact, taking that away angered many adults. The knowledge of not being able to do that anymore took out half the joy in Pilgrimage, because with those clips, you knew you’d make someone smile. We all took our seats half an hour before the third session started. Once it had begun, one of the Pilgrimage coordinators went onstage and explained why we couldn’t have the clothespins. A few Hispanic, Latino, and Asian youth groups had gotten bullying pins that said, “I love Trump!” on one side and “Build that wall!” on the other. One of the chaperones from a Hispanic youth group – Stacy – got up and took the stage.
The beginning of Stacy’s speech was good, explaining how she felt unwanted because of harassing clips her youth group had received and stares that greeted her the day before. She made mention of how she’d grown up being bullied and understanding how it felt to be an outsider. In school, she had to teach herself English, because her family didn’t know the language. During recess, when everyone was playing dodgeball, people would say, “Get out that Mexican girl! Get her out so she could return to where she came from!”
She explained how hurt she felt as she walked into the coliseum when people were looking at them as if to say, What are you doing here? You don’t belong here. However, then she started to make comments, such as how “the message of the red hat and the message of the wall is not the message of the gospel.” A few youth that greeted her were wearing red Make America Great Again hats, which she found offensive. “The message of the red hat was not a message of inclusion and welcome; it was a message of disinclusion (sic) and discrimination.” More of the speech told us that the hat represented a person whose message was unwelcome and discriminatory toward women, Latino, African American, and Hispanic people as well as others. “And this is not the message of the gospel,” Stacy told the many thousand youth listening. “So today, we wanted to tell you, if you really believe that the Holy Spirit is here, if you really want to welcome the Holy Spirit, then take off your red hats.”
Being a true American citizen, she had a right to say that. The freedom of speech is still true, no matter where you are. But many of us believe that she was speaking to the wrong people. Here we were, in a place supposed to be a destination to learn more about God and worship together, only the chaperones able to vote, getting politics in our faces. It seemed as if all us Caucasians were labeled as Trump supporters and racists, even though there were only a few people at fault. We were labeled as haters towards anyone who is darker colored, and I know that that is not the truth about most of the youth present that night.
See, as Christians, we are supposed to be loving towards everyone, not just people with the same skin tone as us. Stacy judged us in her own stereotypes, taking the little she knew from the few minutes they stayed the first night and running and accusing all of us of being like that, when I know that loads of youth groups there would’ve welcomed her in. She tried to blame us all for something only a few people did. You don’t know the past of the youth who wore those hats. No one in our youth group saw them. They might have been using them as warmth, given that inside the coliseum was still really cold. They might not have had much money, so since it was cold around the coliseum and outside, that one hat may have been the only one in their family. We never know what the inside story about people are until we get to know them, but we often don’t take time to and instead make snap decisions. Stacy was willing to tell us about her back story, but she didn’t take time to know the stories of others. We as people have our own opinions, and if we want to wear a hat with our opinions on it, why should we be stopped? What Stacy did was right in the respect that she did have freedom of speech, but wrong in many respects.
1) Wrong place, wrong time. She should not have thrown politics into the matter. She started off strong, but she quickly fell.
2) How many of us youth could vote? That’s right, next to none. Again, she shouldn’t have put in politics.
3) She didn’t respect the fact that we all have our own opinions. Instead, she made a bigger issue out of it all.
4) She labeled us all incorrectly instead of just the people with the hats. She labeled us all as haters and Trump supporters, not Christian people who would welcome everyone gladly.
I was grateful when our livid youth leader said that we were leaving after the speech was over. We decided that since the Pilgrimage pins were taken from us, we would make up some and return to church the next day where we knew we’d be accepted lovingly so we could clip these pins on people. We were up bright and early Sunday morning to get on the road, and we had fun clipping others. I have made up my mind that every time I visit that church, I’m going to clip a handful of people. I can also do it at general places such as grocery stores, restaurants, and gatherings. I can spread love easily through a simple clip.
On a closing note, I believe that our image of what the weekend was going to be was different from God’s plan. I was really grateful that we returned to church early, because we made many people smile with the joy we shared and the enthusiasm we brought with us at the sheer idea of returning. Our pastor was absolutely livid, something I’ve never seen before in my life, and she explained that what happened should not have and that there was no place for it in a church setting. Everyone went out of their way to show us some extra love after the horrible time we’d just had. We all learned things from that experience, but the most important of them all was just how it feels to be labeled as one thing when only a few people were the cause. Such as how Hispanic people are all being labeled as illegal, lazy, and/or drug dealers, when I know many who are perfectly legal, have great jobs, and hate the idea of drugs. We think that Muslims are in support of ISIS, and that Blacks are associated with gangs and ‘hoods. But really, it’s not true. There are White gangs as well, and yet we never want to look at them. What we don’t want to realize is that there are actually only a few immigrants who are illegal, and yet we want to say that every one of them is here illegally and subject to deportation.