Any time I go to a new city, I try to pay attention to the ethos of the place. Each city has a different character, and (since I don't like to appear to be a tourist) I try to fit in as well as possible. I'm fully confident that I regularly fail; nonetheless, I try to pay attention and make myself belong.
I've arrived last night in New Orleans for a part of the ELCA Youth Gathering. I've been to these events before, but always as a leader with a group of students. This is the first time I've been completely free to be an observer.
Most of the time, a convention doesn't change the character of a city. Smaller conventions might meet in smaller cities, where they'll be noticed … but life will continue in that place with relatively little interruption. And when smaller conventions are in bigger cities, there's even less impact. When bigger conventions happen, the city might notice (especially if there's something particularly unusual about the convention-goers … think Star Trek conventions); but even if the city notices, there's not a huge amount of impact.
However, most conventions don't attract over 30,000 participants. And this event, the ELCA Youth Gathering, might be the only regularly-held event that brings in 20,000 high school students into the same place. So it's notable in that regard.
But it's also notable from another perspective. As much as I might try to blend in to the culture of the city, that's impossible to do as part of this gathering. See, the culture of the city has been transformed simply by the presence of so many young people walking around its streets.
And beyond that, the Youth Gathering has its own culture, which gets superimposed onto the city where the event is happening. For instance, in most cities you go to, people don't walk down the street greeting strangers; people don't give gifts to each other, or receive gifts from each other, on a whim. Youth gathering culture says that it's ok to give and receive gifts, to talk with complete strangers as if you've known each other for years, and to ask for hugs from people you've never met before.
It's fascinating to me to see the relative anonymity of an urban center temporarily pushed aside by the anonymous familiarity of a youth gathering.
It has to be empowering for high school students, even if they don't recognize it, to have such an impact on a city. I'm sure it must give them a sense of agency that allows them to break out, even just a little bit, from the mold in which they find themselves. Whether the mold in which they find themselves is 'geeky-chess-club-member' or 'cheerleader,' 'valedictorian' or 'drop-out,' 'music nerd' or 'popular jock,' or any of the myriad others that students find and create to categorize one another, this kind of gathering gives them a chance (even if they don't experience any different in the context of their own youth group) to experience that box cracking open some.
For the impact that gatherings like this have on the cities in which they're held, I give thanks to G-d. And for the impact that gatherings like this have on the lives of young people, not as much today as five and ten and twenty and forty years in the future, I give thanks to G-d.