Stephanie Chadima, a 15-year-old from Pasadena, Md., joined 20,000 other teenagers who packed airports and metro stations on the way to hotels throughout Washington, D.C., this 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.
Chadima said the conference has inspired her to stop listening to rap music with explicit lyrics and to get along with her parents better. “They'll see a better me,” she said.
Chadima's role model, pop Christian singer Jennifer Knapps will be at the conference along with singers Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman, 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.
Chadima said Christianity has not saved her from any heart aches, but has helped her to survive them. When she was 8, Chadima was sexually molested. Later, her grandmother died. She has attended counseling to help her deal with the emotional pain, but she thanks God for helping her survive it.
“If it wasn't for Him, I would have committed suicide for the overwhelming emotion that I've felt,” she said.
She still feels pressured to get good grades for college and to dress a certain way to get boys' attention, but she thanks God for carrying her through the tough times.
“I remember that Jesus died on the cross for me and that what he suffered was much worse than a guy not wanting to go out with me,” she said.
Youth for Christ tries to teach these lessons to other teenagers throughout the country and around the world. Pastors from different Christian denominations started the organization in 1944 to address the spiritual needs of teenage soldiers after World War II. Billy Graham, a well-known 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 element, regardless of how they fill it. When people are not spiritually satisfied by a relationship with God, they have 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.