Ariel Otterstad is Associate Pastor for Discipleship at Living Word Lutheran Church in Katy, Texas. In this role she oversees all discipleship ministries including, Child, Youth & Family Ministries; Christian Education; Milestones Ministry; Small Group Ministries; and Discipleship Themes. In addition to serving Living Word, she is also the creator and administrator of toolboxforfaith.org – an online Confirmation Ministry and author of many seasonal family faith resources. She is a graduate of Newberry College and United Lutheran Seminary.
Mark Dellagiacoma is Coordinator of Children’s Ministry for Living Word Lutheran Church in Katy, Texas. He assists in developing, directing, and leading ministry with and for families with children ages birth to 5th grade. He has nearly two decades experience in children’s and youth ministry, including positions with both local congregations and church camps.
GE: How did you become involved with youth ministry?
AO: My journey in youth ministry started when I was a youth myself. I was on a youth board that ran events for our synod, and was also the youth representative to our church’s Synod Council. After high school, I volunteered with the middle school youth at my home congregation. When I moved away to finish college, life took a different turn. Still, every job I had after college involved helping youth discern their future. I began professional ministry as the part-time youth minister for the church I attended in Texarkana. The more I was there, the more I felt called to do that in a full-time capacity.
Then my grant funded position at the local school district was cut. I applied to two youth ministry positions, never heard back from one, and was quickly hired by the other. So I relocated my family to Seguin, Texas to become a full-time youth minister. I often joke that youth ministry is a gateway drug: you either quit ministry entirely or move on to harder stuff. Whether that involves going to seminary and becoming an ordained minister like I did, or moving to positions at larger churches with more responsibility like Mark did—you’re either in or you’re out. It can be a very rewarding job, but it’s also a very hard job.
MD: To go way back, my grandma was what I call the queen of the altar guild. She did everything for our church. So that example instilled in me a love for service. When I was in high school, I served on my church council, helping with and representing our youth ministry program. Back then, many people saw a call to ministry for me. I did not feel that call at the time, so I joined the Army instead. While I was in the Army, though, I did programs with kids at local schools—mentorship programs, things like that, and just loved it. A year after getting out of the Army, I got my first youth ministry job at a church in the Dallas area. That was a part-time job, but I left that for a full-time job at another church. Twenty years later, I’m still doing youth and family ministry.
GE: How do you incorporate peace and justice issues into youth ministry?
AO: Well, for us, living in Texas, carefully. We live in a place where there are very polarizing viewpoints on life—be they political, cultural, or socio-economic. Our job is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Obviously, leaders of other faith traditions have similar but differently nuanced jobs.) Justice, peace, and love are prevailing themes in Christianity. You will not hear a sermon, you will not learn a lesson from me that doesn’t have those integrated into it. But if I’m just a guns-a-blazing, crazy Old Testament prophet in people’s faces, they will instantaneously get defensive and close off their ears and hearts. I know that a lot of social justice leaders want change and they want it now—and I understand that. But I can’t force people to change. I have to pull them along. I have to drop the bread crumbs. I have to plant the seeds.
It’s a lot easier with youth than it is with adults. They see a lot of the world, and they experience it so much differently than I did as a youth. They have a more diverse set of friends. For them, technology has always been a prevalent part of their lives. Most of them don’t understand why persecuting LGBTQ+ populations is a thing, because they’ve always know people who are LGBTQ+, because in their lifetime it’s always been okay to identify as that. Even when I was a youth, it wasn’t okay to be gay, and I grew up in Oregon. We still weren’t there, and these kids really are. Most of them. Some of the kids, who are raised in particular environments where they hear messages that are contrary to love everyone and accept everyone, aren’t necessarily there.
A lot of what we do as youth ministers is (1) education: do Bible studies, have conversations, talk about what these things look like; and (2) try to expose them to more of the world: be it mission trips or volunteering locally, so they can see that not everybody in Katy, Texas lives in a gated community. Some people are living in a lot more poverty. It’s very important to emphasize that when we go on mission trips or do service projects, we’re not going in to “save” these other people. The point is to build relationships and to meet needs. We have needs, too. We can learn and grow more from the people we are working with than they can from us.
I really think that our job is planting seeds, and I don’t know when those seeds are going to germinate and grow. I’m just going to plant them everywhere I possibly can—as broadly, as widely, as densely as I can—I’m going to plant those seeds. And at some point, hopefully, they will grow into a beautiful plant of peace and justice.
MD: I love the planting seeds metaphor, because I think that’s it. We have opportunities to be around these kids and to meet them where they are. To expect them to believe what I believe, how I believe it, and why I believe it—whether that’s my thoughts about social justice, or why I believe in God, or why I’m Lutheran—that’s not the task. I want to put things in place so that they can learn and grow on their own. I want to create an environment where they can be around people who are different, people with different sexual identities or of different races. If I’m just grouping all my white kids together, we’re not going to be as exposed to different things. That’s why taking them on mission trips and just going outside of their comfort zone are important.
There are people I know who were in my youth group as high school kids, and they were not out. Now they’re out and proud. Maybe they didn’t need to come out back then; maybe it wasn’t their time. But I promoted an environment where it was safe—where kids weren’t going to talk bad about each other or make gay jokes. They weren’t going to call people stupid or retarded, they weren’t going to use words that are hurtful, because you never know who’s in your midst. Years later, I was at a camp where one of my former kids was a counselor. One of his kids said, “That’s so gay,” and he corrected him on the spot. Seed planted, right?
It’s a touchy subject, though. These are other people’s kids, and I’m not telling those people how to parent. When I’m exposing kids to things and trying to broaden their horizons, I’m not telling them their parents ideas are wrong. I’m just saying that there’s more out there.
Back during the Obama administration, I was teaching a confirmation class, and some kids started saying that they hated the current president and wished he would die. I told them that wishing someone dead wasn’t Christian. Regardless of your politics, that hate wasn’t right. Some of the parents came back and accused me of pushing a liberal agenda. I said, “No, did your kids tell you what they said? They said that they wished that man dead. So either they came up with that on their own, or you’re teaching them that it’s okay to wish people dead.” That was the end of that conversation. I’m not pushing agendas, but I’m trying to broaden horizons, plant seeds—even if it’s just the seed for those four kids of not wishing someone dead.
AO: I have a similar story, actually. When I lived in Seguin, I would talk with my youth about peace, justice, and loving your neighbor. One of my youth got mad and told his mother that he didn’t want to come back to youth group because all I was doing was “promoting my personal liberal agenda.” I explained to his mom that I didn’t directly talk about politics at all—if modern day topics came up, it was because one of the youth brought them up—but I did talk about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6: 6-8) and I talked about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned (Matthew 25: 34-45). If he had a problem with that liberal agenda, though, he’d need to take it up with Jesus, because I was just quoting. His mother said, “I will take care of this,” and he never missed youth group again. A few years after that incident, I got a message from him on Facebook. He was applying to the Peace Corps and wanted me to be a reference for him. You cannot make a bigger 180° than that young man did.
GE: How have the youth that you work with inspired you?
AO: I’m inspired by our youth regularly. They’re loving and compassionate human beings. Given the opportunity, I think that they can inspire and transform the world. I’ve had youth who came to me with ideas on how to do things to make the world better. I’ve had kids who found nonprofit organizations that they thought were worthwhile and wanted to support.
At my former congregation, my youth found out about the 30-hour famine concept (a fast to raise awareness about hunger). They came to me asking to do it. We did it for three years in a row, and they loved it. As part of that, we gathered food for our local food pantry and walked it over (about six blocks). The youth had to figure out how to transport and carry all those cans without cars, because if you’re living in a developing nation, you don’t have a Suburban to throw everything into.
We have a youth who was concerned about homelessness in the Houston metro area. She wanted to put together care kits with snacks, bottled water, and hygiene items. There were about 200 of those kits, I think. A lot of the kids kept them in their cars, so that if they saw somebody, they could hand them one. Also, Mark’s wife serves a congregation where a large portion of the congregation are people experiencing homelessness. They were able to use those kits as well.
MD: The young lady that Pastor Ariel was just talking about with the kits for the homeless, she is constantly wanting to learn more about religion and other people. We also have a young man in our congregation, a sophomore in high school, who’s known since the fifth grade that he wants to be a fireman. His life is going to be service to others. He shows that around the church. He comes and helps with everything he can. He’s at the volunteer fire department all the time. To see his heart is amazing.
At a church I served before, a young lady was going through some tough times. Her parents were getting divorced and she wasn’t in a good spot. There was a boy who didn’t know her very well but could tell that she was hurting, so he sat next to her just to be in her presence while she cried at her table. A friendship developed from that. Now, I’m trained to do that. I see a kid hurting from across the room, and I’m trained to go talk to that kid. When other young people start doing that and start caring for others, that’s a big thing. When you see your youth become the people that you knew they could be, you thought they would be, you hoped they would be, but they exceed that—that’s inspiring.
AO: As a proud mom, I’m inspired by my own children. My son Patrick knits and crochets, and he was on this stocking cap making binge one winter. He made about a hundred stocking caps. What were we going to do with those? Well again, Mark’s wife works with a lot of people experiencing homelessness. After about a month on the streets, those hats are trashed. But for that month, they’re warm. So now Patrick has donated hundreds of hats to her church. We’ve also shipped them to nonprofit partners in New York, Tennessee, Oregon—various different places.
MD: It’s similar for me. My ministry has changed in the last nine years since I became a parent. I see what my daughter has become—as a nine-year-old, the social justice that she fights for. I’m proud of her. She’s been to more marches and made more posters for things than I ever did at that age. But it’s things that she wants to do. It’s women’s rights marches. She’s a girl, and she wants girls to have power.
AO: Those are the things that inspire me, because those are the things that come out of their spiritual gifts, their caring, and their compassion. I think my favorite thing is when youth come to me and say, “We have this idea.” I’m not the future of the world; I’m 40 years old. These kids can come up and transform it. So when those little glimpses of transformation pop through, that’s when I get inspired.
Gabriel Ertsgaard is the interviews editor for Peace Chronicle and copy editor for the literary journal Drifting Sands. A former English lecturer, he earned his Doctor of Letters from Drew University with a dissertation on environmental themes in a medieval legend. His criticism, poetry, and fairy tales have appeared in various print and digital publications.