By Erik Alsgaard
Students, Parents, and Youth leaders spent the weekend Praying, Worshipping and Seeking God at ROCK
“Stay true and never deviate.”
If you make an acronym out of that sentence, you get “STAND.” And that’s exactly what Bishop LaTrelle Easterling told the nearly 5,000 youth and adult chaperones at ROCK to do, Jan. 26 through 28, in Ocean City.
Now in its 24th year, ROCK is a youth retreat that emphasizes a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as a way of finding one’s purpose in life. “God loves us and has a plan for us,” Bishop Easterling said in her opening talk. “Don’t let anyone take you off the path God has for you. Stay true and never deviate. God loves you. I want you to stand.”
Bishop Easterling – the first woman bishop of the BWC – spoke four times over the course of the three days, using dramatic and inspiring true-life stories to connect with the youth. For example, when she was in grade school, Bishop Easterling said, she wanted to fit in. “I didn’t see what my teachers, pastors, and parents said they saw in me. So I began looking for affirmation in the wrong places.” That search led her to join with other kids “on the edge,” she said. At one point, the group decided it was okay to start bullying other kids, and wanted the young LaTrelle to join in. “I almost did,” she said, “but I heard that still small voice say, ‘LaTrelle: don’t do it.’ Beloved, I want you to know that our choices matter.” Because she wouldn’t join in with the group, the group started bullying her, throwing rocks at her and spitting on her. It hurt worse than a knife, she said, because it was cutting her on the inside. “When we are looking outside of ourselves for confirmation and affirmation, all we are is diminished,” the bishop said. “I hope you know your worth. I hope you know you are precious in God’s sight.”
On Saturday morning, the bishop related the poignant story of her father’s death and how it affected her in profound ways. When she was 17, her father had a stroke. That was in August; by November, he was dead. “My father was my protector, my biggest supporter, my source of strength,” Bishop Easterling said. “My father was my rock.” After the funeral, driving home from the cemetery, the bishop said she remembers looking out the car window and seeing people walking and talking, going on about their life. “Don’t they know my daddy died?” she remembered thinking.
She also shared how, if her daddy wasn’t here anymore, then maybe she didn’t want to be here anymore either. “If it was okay for my daddy to go see Jesus, maybe it was okay for me to go see Jesus,” she said.“It was one of the darkest periods of my life.” But when she was about to give up, she heard a still small voice: “’Yes, your father loved you, but I love you more. Your father held you, but I’ll hold you forever.’
“Some of you might be upset that I began to think about committing suicide,” the bishop said. “There are people here today, at ROCK, wondering if their life is still worth living. This is one of the reasons the church today is so irrelevant: we try to act like everything’s okay. It’s alright to say, ‘Everything is not alright.’” Noting that more youth and young adults die of suicide than cancer, heart disease, accidents and illness combined, the bishop said, “If we don’t speak to it, if we ignore it, we might not catch it in time.”
On Saturday night, Bishop Easterling told the youth, “You have a decision to make. You have the opportunity to give your life to Christ.” Noting that people make thousands of decisions every day, the bishop said this one would be the most important one of your life. “This decision will change how you walk and talk and act and think, but for the better.” The decision, she said, is to give your life back to God. And the bishop related how she, herself, gave her life to Christ at a young age. She was at a revival, she said. “It was as if the spirit scooped me up from the back pew and brought me down the aisle,” she said. “I gave the minister my hand, but I was really giving my hand back to God.” The bishop added that the opportunity before the young and young adults was to be a witness for God, and “we need witnesses today. We need you to stand on Christ the solid rock.”
Bishop Easterling offered prayer for the hundreds of kids who came forward to the stage. “God, these young people have come, believing that you have a calling on their lives,” she prayed. “Make plain the direction they are to take. Help them to understand that if no body else gets it, you get it. If nobody else is celebrating, the angels in heaven are celebrating right now. … Hallelujah!”
Produced by Joyful Noise! LLC, in conjunction with the Baltimore-Washington Conference, Tom and Becki Price have spearheaded the event for the past 21 years. “God showed up in many amazing ways at ROCK,” said Becki Price after ROCK ended Sunday at noon. “With nearly 5,000 youth and youth leaders of all colors, genders, background coming together to praise God. It's a glimpse of heaven.” Price said that the movement of the Holy Spirit was palpable and, at times overwhelming, during ROCK.
“The messages brought by Bishop Easterling were incredibly dynamic and Spirit-filled,” she said. “As always, the Saturday night call to accept Jesus was the most moving and inspiring time of the weekend. The ROCK team leadership and all the volunteers work together as a family, keeping God and the youth as the focus. We are grateful to God to be a part of such an amazing team. To God be the glory!”
The offering at ROCK was more than $14,000, Becki Price said. The money will all go to support UMCOR – the United Methodist Committee on Relief – in its disaster relief ministry.