Young attendees prepare to return from EYE 2023 inspired by messages of Christian belonging

By Logan Crews
Posted Jul 7, 2023
EYE crowd

Hundreds of young people gathered for Episcopal Youth Event July 4-7 at the University of Maryland in College Park. Photo: Episcopal Church Office of Communication

[Episcopal News Service — College Park, Maryland] The Episcopal Youth Event, or EYE, concluded July 7 with workshops, province meet-ups and a closing plenary featuring Julia Ayala Harris, the president of the House of Deputies. Ayala Harris and other speakers from varying vocations focused on the theme “Send.”

“[It’s] 1998, I’m 17 years old,” Ayala Harris said, pointing toward a picture of her as a teenager displayed on a screen. “And I have so much going on behind those eyes.” Ayala Harris, who is the first Latina and woman of color to become president of the House of Deputies, went on to tell her story of finding belonging.

As more relatives from the Mexican side of her family were coming to the United States, she was raised by her white grandparents, surrounded by so many cousins. As a teen mother, she said she barely graduated from high school, and afterward, she went from her childhood as an altar kid at a Catholic church to attending an evangelical college.

Then, at 20 years old, she found The Episcopal Church and encountered a female clergyperson for the first time.

“I was blown away,” Ayala Harris said. “It had never even occurred to me that women can be in leadership of the church.”

Ayala Harris emphasized that while women and LGBTQ+ Episcopalians are welcomed, there is still more work to be done to include all people. Part of this depends on empowering young people to be their authentic selves and discern what God is calling them to do.

Julia Ayala Harris at EYE

House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris speaks July 7 during Episcopal Youth Event 2023 at College Park, Maryland. Photo: Episcopal Church Office of Communication

There is no shortage of problems to solve that the teenagers at EYE are facing. For Levi Simpson, a 17-year-old from the Diocese of Los Angeles, it’s the impacts of social media.

“It’s really easy to get wrapped up into a lot of things, and a lot of expectations are made on social media,” Simpson said. “You can really kill your motivation and the way you perceive yourself.”

Simpson and his friends said that events like EYE are rare opportunities where they get to be face-to-face with peers they otherwise can only encounter online. They will be taking back icebreakers and the interactive nature of this week’s workshops to implement in their churches at home.

The Rev. Michael Sahdev, who traveled with Simpson from the Diocese of Los Angeles, first attended EYE when he was a junior in high school. He said he still remembers how it felt to see the number of people gathered, all there to build up each other and their faith.

“Now being a priest, to watch our youth who don’t, for the most part, have a ton of interaction with diocesan ministries or the wider church for a variety of reasons, [like] COVID and everything else,” Sahdev said, “[it’s powerful] to see them join into something so precious, so holy, so wonderful that formed me and led me, in many ways, to be a priest.”

James Ordona, an 18-year-old from Guam, has appreciated the chance to branch out this week because he said he’s an introvert who wants to be a teacher. At his church at home, he participates as an acolyte because reading in front of others can be difficult, but he is trying to overcome his reluctance.

“I want to help people a lot,” Ordona said, “educate them and learn about mental health issues a lot of us struggle with.”

In addition to the common problems Ordona faces as a young person in 2023, he told ENS how his community has been devastated by a recent typhoon, Mawar. The storm, considered a super typhoon because of its Category-4 winds, hit Guam and other islands in May, leaving many in crisis.

“For like two or three weeks, no one had power or gas, and the gas stations were the only solutions to have some sort of electricity. So huge lines were forming, and people were panicking because what are they going to do? Some of them really lost everything. I was lucky enough to still have my house.”

EYE stage

Episcopal Youth Event 2023 concluded July 7 with workshops, province meet-ups and a closing plenary. Photo: Episcopal Church Office of Communication

He said his delegation owes their attendance to Bishop Robert Fitzpatrick, who oversees the Episcopal Church in Micronesia. Fitzpatrick helped them fundraise to travel to Maryland, and Ordona is taking back inspiration for action beyond the religious sphere.

“[I appreciate] all the knowledge I’ve learned from here and how it can help my community back home,” Ordona said. “Not just my church but also my whole life and the government there as well. Because honestly, it’s kind of shifting sometimes.”

EYE is winding down on the final night with karaoke, dinner and a closing worship service. Conversations between new friends on the University of Maryland campus ring of hope, belonging and action. Youth attendees have told ENS how, overall, they have heard loud and clear that they are worthy of God’s love, no matter what.

“I’m not broken or fractured, I am a whole person,” Ayala Harris said at the end of her address. “I am beloved by God, with God-given gifts, identities and experiences that will help shape and inform everything I do and that I belong here. So I am here to tell you that you belong in the Episcopal Church.”

-Logan Crews is an Episcopal Church Ecojustice Fellow and serves on the student leadership team of the World Student Christian Federation-United States.