The first in-person United Methodist Youth Institute in three years may have lacked the hundred-plus attendees of previous versions, but not its spirit.
About 35 youth attended Institute, whose roots go back a century, at Baker University in Baldwin City from July 25 to 30.
“They’ve really formed a nice community together, and it might even be tighter-knit because there’s less of them,” said Heather Fischer, stepping in for her brother, the Rev. Kurt Cooper, as community life director.
Teens from eighth grade through recent high school graduates gathered at Baldwin City First UMC for the traditional midweek visitors’ night, including a round of “silly songs” and moving music, as well as testimonies.
“We have reveled in feeling the floor shake and the rafters shake as we worship and praise together,” the Rev. Amanda Baker, Baldwin City First United Methodist Church pastor, said of the youth’s return at the opening of the visitors’ service.
COVID forced the Institute to go online in 2020 and ’21. Youth beyond the cutoff age who did not get the chance to meet for in-person Institute were invited back to have the experience, with a different learning track than the younger attendees.
Among them was Faith Beyer of Lawrence.
“I have closure coming here for the last time,” she said. “Getting to come back here and having this opportunity just makes me so happy. I wish kids would take the opportunity to commit to it, because it really will change your life.”
Carter Seth of Silver Lake spent two years in person at Institute and two years online before returning this year as a member of the youth coordinating team.
“Being able to be back in the church, be back in the chapel, feel the excitement of people and feel the energy is just so great,” he said following the service. “Even with the lower numbers and everything, I felt like this (church) has been more alive than ever, even when it was completely full.”
Speakers for the visitors’ service included Sydney Pederson of Hiawatha, another member of the youth coordinating team; and the Rev. Kevin Hopkins, campus minister at Baker.
Fischer, a member of Manhattan First UMC, said she’s seen spirit and grace shown by the teens.
“The first day there were lots of kids sitting by themselves, a little unsure,” she said. “By day two, that wasn’t happening. Lots of people were reaching out to others to make sure they’re included.”
She also said teens who weren’t participating in music on the first day were going with full gusto into the songs and accompanying motions by the third day. Music was led by the Rev. Phil Clay, associate pastor at Topeka Countryside UMC.
The momentum built up by Institute was lessened by the pandemic, Fischer said.
“You take two years out of a high school kid’s life and go online, you really lose all your people who have been (to Institute) and can tell others ‘Come with us,’” she said.
Fischer said she and others are confident that Institute can return to its pre-pandemic state.
“Hopefully this is a building year, and it gets bigger next year,” she said.
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