Joshua Slone, an 18-year-old from Asheville, N.C., 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.
Slone said his experiences at the conference will make him more compassionate to people back home.
The conference includes seminars on relationships and leadership, 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.
Slone, who just graduated from Asheville Christian Academy, said Christianity provides a relationship both with other teens and with God. Even though he grew up in a Christian family, Slone developed social habits in high school that contradicted traditional Christian values.
At a Christian sports camp when he was 17, Slone watched a play about a girl suffering from depression who blamed God for her pain. The play demonstrated God's love for the actress. Slone said he realized for the first time that God had the same personal love for him.
“Because I realized how much God loved me, it totally made me secure with myself,” Slone said. “God has just totally made me such a joyful person.”
Slone's friends immediately noticed his sense of peace and joy. “He was just a totally different person,” said Jennifer Clark, 18, who grew up with him and also attended the conference.
Pastors from different Christian denominations started Youth for Christ 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, which works with teenagers throughout the country and around the world.
“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.