Morgan Mitchel, an 18-year-old from Monroe, Ind., joined 20,000 other teenagers who packed airports and metro stations as they journeyed to hotels throughout Washington, D.C., last week.
From July 19-23, these students from around the country will learn how to be better leaders, athletes, sons, daughters and friends at the sixth triennial Youth for Christ “DC/LA” conference in the Washington Convention Center. Other students attended a similar conference in Los Angeles, Calif., in June.
Mitchel said the conference has taught her a new leadership style. “I've begun to recognize people's gifts and I will begin to ask people to use those,” she said.
The conference includes seminars on leadership and relationships, as well as dozens of speakers and celebrities, including singers Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman and Jennifer Knapp, the musical group Jars of Clay and A.C. Green from the Los Angeles Lakers. On Friday evening, students plan to march in a parade and meet near the Washington Monument for the “Rally at the Mall.”
Washington residents have had mixed reactions to the flood of youth. The woman on duty at the Metro Center stop Wednesday night screamed for the chaperones to quiet their students. Erin Burton, 21, works at the front desk of the Renaissance Hotel where 4000 of the students stayed and said some of the youth have slept in hallways.
The teens' desire for the conference is to develop a closer relationship with Jesus Christ and learn how to share that with others, 15-year-old Jennifer Nance from Bellbrook, Ohio, said. “I am here to learn how to show others about Jesus,” she said.
Mitchel said Christianity has been critical to her success at Adams Central High School in Monroe, Ind. She was valedictorian this past spring and president of the senior class. She played three sports, led community projects and tutored students for the National Honor Society. But she said she could not have been effective without God.
“It provided the strength I needed,” she said.
Mitchel became a Christian when she was 9. She and her friends swore to each other they would not get swept away by the high school social scene. But when they got their licenses, everyone “split from their promises,” Mitchel said.
She met her friends in the woods, watched them get drunk, drove them places and held their hair back when they vomited. She also lied to her parents about where she went and what she did.
“I felt so guilty for lying and dirty for being there,” she said.
During her sophomore year, her conscience became too heavy to ignore. When she decided to stop socializing with the same group of friends, she found herself at home with her family on many weekends.
Eventually, she developed a closer relationship with her parents and became best friends with her sister, Jeremi, who is 16 months older than she is. She also found friends who encouraged her relationship with God.
“It's so nice to not have to worry about that guilt feeling,” she said.
Youth for Christ, the organization that sponsored the conference, tries to teach other teenagers throughout the country and around the world how to have a similar peace. Pastors started the organization in 1944 to address the spiritual needs of teenage soldiers after World War II. Billy Graham, an evangelical Christian, was the first full-time employee of the organization.
“We believe that every student's life should be in balance mentally, physically, socially—but also spiritually,” said J.D. Holt, a volunteer for the conference from Castle Rock, Colo., who worked with the organization for 28 years. Holt said people tend to center their lives around the spiritual aspect, regardless of how they fill it. Some people don't fill it properly, which causes a sense of emptiness and lack of purpose, Holt said.
“We believe that what you're looking for is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ,” he said.