“But If Not” GYC Convention Brings Nearly 4,000 Young Adventists to Portland

Weimar University performs during the evening plenary on December 30, 2023. [Photo: Avner Shryer/The GYC Record]

In 2023, Olivia Forster made a decision: she wanted to get out and be around more youth. She had been raised Seventh-day Adventist, but as a 26-year-old based in rural Wagener, South Carolina (population 767), she didn’t have many young people—especially Adventists—to associate with. She had heard about GYC in the past but never attended.

It was that initial decision, however, that led to her arrival in Portland at the Oregon Convention Center for the 2023 GYC convention. She invited her friends, brothers Aaron and Ivan Tenorio of Salem, South Carolina, to come along with her. “It was never in the plans to come,” Ivan said of the trio’s attendance. “We wouldn’t have heard of GYC without [Olivia].” They left blessed, encouraged, and with much to think about. 

“It’s very encouraging to see other people around our age, and even younger, who are well grounded in the faith,” Forster said. “Sometimes it seems like we’re standing alone, but we’re not. There’s a big community for all of us, and we want to achieve the same thing—win souls for Christ.”

Stories like theirs are part of why GYC was founded in 2002, according to a report from the Lake Union Herald. A group of young adults felt a burning desire to unite with their fellow believers in serious Bible study and intellectual discourse. They weren’t the only ones feeling that burn—hundreds showed up to the first convention, even overflowing the California campground that hosted them. 

Since then, the convention-turned-revival movement has grown, bringing thousands of Adventist youth and young adults to the streets of metropolitan areas. First, participants rekindle their faith, listening to impactful messages from speakers and discussing relevant spiritual issues in seminars. And then, they blanket the city with evangelistic goodwill. It all culminates with a final charge that allows attendees to commit themselves to intentional spiritual growth when they leave.

Attendees explore the Oregon Convention Center before GYC Portland begins. [Photo: Samuel Girven/The GYC Record]

This year, the gathering’s theme was “But If Not,” focusing on the biblical story of three Hebrew captives—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—who refused to worship the Babylonian king’s golden statue. In the narrative, the men stand firm against the king, even saying that God can protect them from the burning furnace flames that await them as punishment for their defiance. But, even if God didn’t protect them, the men said they still wouldn’t pay homage to the statue. 

Over 4,000 people registered for the 2023 convention, held December 27-31. They united in worship, prayer, outreach, and community, and many left with renewed zeal for their faith.

GYC President Andrew Park posited a question during his opening keynote address: “Why are we here?” [Photo: Samuel Girven/The GYC Record]

Speakers Inspire Attendees to Serve God Despite Challenges

On Wednesday, December 27, the convention’s opening night, GYC President Andrew Park posited a question during his opening keynote address: “Why are we here?”

The question, which he returned to multiple times throughout his 50-minute sermon, served as the foundation for his message and several other questions he asked the young audience. “Why do you feel you had to be at GYC this year,” Park asked. He pointed to the mission of GYC and its reason for existence—”to inspire young people to study the word of God”—as his answer, yet he also acknowledged that some might be at GYC for less pointful purposes.

Park painted a dispiriting picture and compared it to the biblical narrative of Daniel 1 and the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon. “At this time, your peers have left. The church leadership has failed. There’s no vibrant community around them. They’re witnessing their friends give into the darkness. They have no mentors to help them. All of their experiences are screaming out: ‘Leave God, leave the church, look at your dreadful experience.’” 

Referencing the gathering’s theme, Daniel and his friends, Park said, never asked God to show them a sign of his presence despite their dreadful straits as Hebrew captives of a foreign kingdom. Instead, their attitude said God could deliver them, but they would still trust and serve him if he didn’t.

Park’s keynote set the tone for the long weekend’s speakers. Mark Howard, Sabbath School and Personal Ministries associate director for the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, spoke during the morning plenary sessions. Sam Walters, a pharmacist and speaker in the United Kingdom, provided the evening plenary sessions. And, on Saturday, Jermaine Gayle, pastor of the University Seventh-day Adventist Church in East Lansing, Michigan, passionately preached on the battle for young adults to compromise their faith through their daily lives. 

Seminar speakers addressed relevant topics. [Photo: Courtesy of GYC Photography Team]

Additionally, 15 speakers addressed topics such as Bible study, relationships, trauma recovery, and “biblical womanhood and manhood” across two days of sessions. Most meetings were well attended—leading room hosts to stop accepting more people just minutes after the seminar periods began. 

Evangelism Provides Unique Opportunities to Minister to Portland

Five groups with varying mandates gathered on Friday, December 29, to tackle daunting evangelism tasks—a departure from longstanding tradition.

GYC Vice President for Evangelism Junior Vertus told The GYC Record in an interview that during the organizational process for this year’s conference, the evangelism team began to pray about what they should do to reach Portland—one of the most secular cities in the United States. “People just don’t want to hear the name of Jesus here. It’s always encouraged that the approach taken here should be different,” he said. Pointing to a quote from the book “Ministry of Healing” by Ellen White, Vertus said the goal with each project was to embody “Christ’s method of evangelism.”

The attendee’s efforts surpassed most goals within hours. 

One notable initiative came through a partnership between GYC and the local chapter of the nationwide non-profit Sleep in Heavenly Peace. 

Combining the community-focused ethos of this year’s evangelism plans and the humanitarian prowess of Sleep in Heavenly Peace, 107 beds were built entirely by GYC attendees in a tedious and methodical yet fun process.

Sleep in Heavenly Peace and GYC partnered to build over 100 beds for Portland children. [Photo: Samuel Girven/The GYC Record]

It’s like a giant assembly line. The reason behind it? According to Sleep in Heavenly Peace leaders, as many community members as possible should touch the bed before it’s complete because the beds are joint community projects. Some attendees cut and sanded lumber. Others applied stains. Some branded the beds using an iron-cast “SHP” sign. 

The handmade beds, complete with mattresses and blankets, will be delivered by Sleep in Heavenly Peace to families whose children are sleeping on the floor—a critical need within Portland and many other communities throughout the United States.

“It seemed like a great opportunity to do something that would make an impact,” said Zachary Ramont, a GYC attendee who participated in the bed-building project. “It is a very unique opportunity.” Grace Garcia, another attendee who built beds, agreed. “It’s very hands-on, and it’s actually going to impact someone’s life.” She pointed out that it’s not every day that one has the opportunity to build beds. 

“It was really organized, and everyone worked really well,” Garcia added. Ramont concurred, saying that throughout the hours-long ordeal, “it never really got boring.”

Another outreach option that participants could choose from reached the unhoused population in Portland.

Over 2,000 individual bags of blankets, hygiene products, and snacks were packed and distributed by GYC attendees. The bags, which often included GLOW tracts and handwritten care messages, were prepared in partnership with CityTeam Portland, a local non-profit dedicated to “providing immediate help and support to men and women struggling with food insecurity, homelessness, and other life-disabling circumstances.”

“Most were very receptive to getting a care package,” said Olivia Slabbert, an attendee who helped pack and distribute the bags. “The bags had a lot of supplies that they really needed.” Jared Chung also helped and said that when someone opened the bag they received, “you could see their eyes light up.” 

Collin Ntwali, another GYC attendee who helped with this outreach opportunity, said he chose this because “there are a lot of people out there who have nobody.” At the end of the year, he said, everyone else is celebrating and spending money. These people, though, are on the streets and cold. “It’s an opportunity for us to reach them, share the gospel with them, and hopefully give them some more strength to keep going.”

In something much more in line with past GYC evangelism experiences, busloads of people also left the Oregon Convention Center. They distributed GLOW Tracts by going door-to-door in the Portland community. Another group went and sang in various venues, including a correctional facility. Perhaps one of the most essential forms of “outreach” was the hours-long prayer session held in the Oregon Ballroom. According to Gem Castor, GYC prayer coordinator, over 400 people showed up to lift the community and the work being done in prayer.

Early Morning Prayer Sessions Unite Hundreds in Prayer

Every morning, GYC’s early risers gathered to pray. Though each session was set to begin at 6:15 a.m., the room was usually filled by 6:20 a.m. 

Young and young at heart sat on the carpeted floor, cross-legged in the middle of the ballroom or along the walls, singing as more people filled the space. On the first morning, Gem Castor, the prayer coordinator for GYC, began the session with prayer and a devotional. In his devotional thought, Castor emphasized the need for attendees to lay down our “burden of sin” and to repent.

Young and young at heart sat on the carpeted floor, cross-legged in the middle of the ballroom or along the walls, singing as more people filled the space. [Photos: Courtesy of GYC Photography Team]

He shared: “We can no more repent without the spirit of Christ to awaken the conscience than we can be pardoned without Christ; Christ is the source of every right impulse.” Castor continued, saying: “He is the only one who can implant in the heart enmity against sin.” The message gave participants time for personal reflection and an opportunity to intercede privately.

Castor spoke passionately and urgently, sharing his desire for GYC participants with the group. “We desire revival, and we desire latter rain,” he said. Singing co-exists in the same space as praying in the GYC prayer sessions; participants engaged in a “popcorn-style” prayer after singing a song.

Castor began with a prayer of praise: “Lord, I praise you for the blessing that [you are] to us…”  Then, several group members “popcorned” their prayers of praise. A prayer of confession followed this: “Lord, please forgive me for…” and a prayer of petition: “Lord, please help me give you…”  Participants then formed groups of four or five to continue the prayer format in a more intimate format.

By 7 a.m., the ballroom is fully packed. Though late, many who came could participate in the prayers by standing just outside the doors. 

One young woman who attended the prayer session, Naomi Beaubrun from Brooklyn, New York, shared what she enjoyed most about the experience. She said, “I liked the unified prayers.” She specifically appreciated the element that allowed her to hear the prayers of others. “You felt enveloped in a room of other believers, of other struggling Christians, trying our best to grow and be better every day.”

New “Afterglow” Sessions Create New Friends

Afterglow, a new feature of this year’s GYC convention, was another feature enthusiastically embraced by attendees.

Led by Stephen and Felecia Lee every evening at 9 p.m., the unique meeting helped everyone get to know one another through various icebreakers, games, and a small workshop. 

On Wednesday, December 27, icebreakers such as “Would You Rather?” invited participants to make hypothetical decisions—some serious, some lighthearted. Discussions emerged from questions such as, “Would you rather make a little bit of money doing what you love or make a lot of money doing work you hate?” Laughter characterized another question: “Would you rather be stranded in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean or a spaceship in the middle of the galaxy?” 

Laughter characterized another question: “Would you rather be stranded in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean or a spaceship in the middle of the galaxy?” [Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Lee]

On Thursday, December 28, participants were divided into groups by birthday month and given a list of questions to discuss. According to one young woman, Danielle Acosta, from Tillamook, Oregon, “The questions were more than your typical icebreaker questions. These questions were deeper.” 

Questions such as, “Who was the most influential person in your life so far?” and “What is your mission in life, and how do you see yourself fulfilling that mission?” pushed the groups to go deeper in their conversations. “As we discussed and shared with each other, it was fun to laugh, listen, and encourage each other [in the ways] God is leading [our] lives and how we’ve become a blessing in our home, school, and workplace,” Acosta says.

After icebreakers, attendees could mingle. Luckily, self-identified introverts were not left to fend for themselves as Felecia led a workshop providing advice and tools on how to make new friends. She discussed the importance of good posture, eye contact, a firm handshake, and avoiding mental roadblocks such as “the negative voice in your head.” 

Felecia said of the workshop, “I wanted to do a session for people on the shy and introverted side to help them learn how to interact with others. Even though [Afterglow is] all about networking, some people need tools to help them learn how to do [just that].”

Her husband, Stephen, added: ”It is powerful to come and listen to sermons and presentations to receive the Word of God, to be inspired and convicted for Him… but,” he continues, “I believe God desires just as much [for us] to have a close relationship with each other.” 

“Afterglow,” he says, “is a small step but huge impact and step in the right direction for our people to come together.”

“God is still God.”

Concluding the weekend, Adam Ramdin spoke for the final meeting, known as the “final charge.” In it, he showed how figures in Christian history endured to their ends as leaders in reforming the Christian church. His poignant and pointed sermon implored attendees to stay faithful even if they suffer for their decision to do what is right.

“What about when God doesn’t honor your faithfulness with prosperity in an earthly sense?” he asked. “In the midst of grief and heartache, you say, ‘God is still God.’”

Appealing to the large group, Ramdin asked if anyone felt called to serve as a missionary—career, short-term, long-term, or otherwise. The question mirrored several other appeals throughout the convention—asking for decisions to serve either in their daily lives or by changing their life—even if they had to make hard decisions.

Judith Silfrene and Tapo Tsikirai are staff writers for The GYC Record. Samuel Girven is the editor of The GYC Record.

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