As the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace prepared for her two-week stint as guest preacher at the Montreat Youth Conferences earlier this summer, the Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly felt what she called “a lot of nerves.”

Santana-Grace is an experienced pastor and presbytery leader who in the last year has moderated General Assembly plenaries alongside her sister Co-Moderator, the Rev. Shavon Sterling-Louis, preached at a United Nations ecumenical service and traveled the country as denominational ambassador, meeting countless Presbyterians at congregations, mid councils and seminaries.

So why was she nervous about Montreat? In a word: teenagers.

“What could I share in a way that could be heard by young people who will never not tell you what they’re hearing?” Santana-Grace told the news service. “The theme was ‘In.Joy.’ What does that mean in a way that’s not Pollyannaish? What could I share from my experiences that might be similar to the emotional experiences of high schoolers and rising college students?”

The Rev. Lynne Keel, Director for Programs at the Montreat Conference Center, explained this summer’s theme as a way to talk about joy as something adjacent to but distinct from happiness. She said that Santana-Grace not only preached brilliantly on the theme, but “showed up in every way at the conference.”

“We told the youth, ‘You have a special treat to be here with the co-moderator of the General Assembly, who’s here to listen to you.’ And that’s exactly what she did not only preaching, but coming to rec events, talking to youth, making them feel close to the church.”

DJ Boyd (left) and Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, Montreat Youth Conferences, 2023. All photos by Mike Erdelyi.

DJ Boyd (left) and the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, Montreat Youth Conferences, 2023. All photos by Mike Erdelyi.

According to the Montreat Youth Conferences website, the summer weeks are “designed for high school students, entering freshmen through graduated seniors.”

Keel said each summer’s planning team of six adults and four young people “tries to include as many diverse voices as we can, with geography and background in mind, so we don’t have two youths from the same place working together all week, for example.” That means recruiting stage leaders and guest speakers with a diverse array of experiences and perspectives.

A conference director, adult and youth planning team members assigned to Santana-Grace helped in the final stages with fine-tuning video clips and slides Santana-Grace had developed for her nightly sermons. They also helped her select small “take-aways” the hundreds of students in the audience at Anderson Auditorium could keep as mementos, such as colored ribbons or mirrors that related to Santana-Grace’s preaching themes. On her last night of both weeks, Santana-Grace talked about crossing over the Jordan, with the take-aways helping students ponder a question that works for a summer conference or any other new experience: “What can you take back with you?” she said. “What do you want to remember of this moment?”

Darci McKinnon, co-director for weeks 3 and 4 of the youth conferences, had invited Santana-Grace to preach at Montreat two years earlier after seeing her speak at a church women’s gathering.

McKinnon coordinated all events inside Anderson Auditorium, which during Santana-Grace’s time as guest preacher included daily keynote addresses by the Rev. Anne Russ, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor from New York City.

“Ruth has such a wonderful spirit,” McKinnon said. “She spoke to the young people as adults, she did not preach down to them. She was open, honest and at times vulnerable with them. They loved her!”  

Morgan Wilson, a student participant in the conference’s Jeremiah Project who assisted with the processional and liturgy, enjoyed learning from the Co-Moderator.

“During Thursday evening as the leadership crew was preparing for the evening service, I had come to Pastor Ruth about a question regarding the significance of the raven and doves Noah sent out once the ark had landed,” Wilson said. “She not only answered my question, but continued the conversation into answering more questions that God had placed on my heart. After speaking with her, I not only left with a better understanding of the verse but also what God calls us to do.”

That same night Wilson saw Santana-Grace preach about “the gifts God has given us to give joy to the world,” he said. “At that moment, watching her preach on stage, I saw the joy she received from leading others to Christ … At that moment I realized that we can not only create joy for others ourselves by using the gifts God has given us, but also we could experience immense joy leading others to God.”

Audience inside Anderson Auditorium, Montreat Youth Conferences, 2023.

Audience inside Anderson Auditorium, Montreat Youth Conferences, 2023.

Each Montreat day and night gave Santana-Grace memories she won’t soon forget, including the singing and joyous energizers that served as a common language for the conference’s time together, or the afternoon she was able to introduce Starling-Louis to the high schoolers; she had driven from Charlotte to spend the afternoon with Santana-Grace. It was touching for Starling-Louis to experience the energy of the teenagers, as they stood to welcome her as General Assembly Co-Moderator for the first time. Among her favorite moments was the privilege of engaging in surprising and inspirational conversations with the youth. Many moments were captured by the conference’s photographer, Mike Erdelyi, showing Santana-Grace lifting arms in faithful exhortation, laughing at a skit or smiling at the noise of DJ Boyd, the conferences’ music leader.

One memory Santana-Grace was uncertain as to how it would be received was what she described as “my parental coming-out story.” For the first time, she publicly spoke about her son Dakota’s story.

During one night’s preaching, referring to the overall theme of “seeing yourself as God sees you,” Santana-Grace reflected on how God continually calls young people to stand up against forces that seem to overwhelm us. What these young people have in common across centuries is that they believe they are loved and valued by God. This was the power of the young Mary (with the Magnificat as back story) in the midst of what could be frightening circumstances, Mary understands “she is loved by God in her time of great uncertainty” before Jesus’s birth. Connecting lives from the Bible to lives of contemporary figures such as Holocaust survivor Eli Weisel and presidential inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, Santana-Grace reaffirmed the importance of seeing others as God sees them and not as we assume them to be. 

This belief was tested when Dakota came home from his first year at Harvard and announced, “I’m gay.” 

“[My husband and I] said all the right things to him but deep within me, I remember being unsettled,” Santana-Grace told the news service. “In addition to fearing for my boy’s well-being in a world that can be cruel, I had to deal with my own fears as an ‘evangelical progressive.’ How would the church respond? I wondered how the church would perceive him would perceive me. I was wrestling with the temptation to forget that our son was loved by a God who created him in love. I was wrestling with the temptation to let the world’s judgment define me.

“My husband and I are blessed by the journey we’ve been on with Dakota. He has taught us much about assumptions.”

She said the audience at Montreat allowed her to go to a “very vulnerable place,” and that its acceptance and ongoing commitment to being accepting “took me somewhere I had forgotten.”

In the following days at Montreat, Santana-Grace heard young people talking about their own stories, which she found to be “such a powerful witness.”

“To see what an indirect blessing my story was to so many, and talking about it from a parenting perspective it was an unexpected larger community gift that just happened,” Santana-Grace said. “I was in great trepidation because I had never talked about this.”

She wasn’t alone.

“I had parents at Montreat tell me it took a year for them to come to accept what a child had told them about their identity,” Santana-Grace said. “We still have work to do to help parents leave behind assumptions of identity that have formed them.”

Keel said, “What was important about Ruth’s story was her emotional journey. Hers was a very real and human response. And it was wonderful how she talked about her story with a theologically diverse group listening.

“At Montreat we see ourselves as a place where everyone is welcome. We don’t tolerate hate or discrimination, but we do tolerate disagreement. Youth here are seeing healthy dialogue modeled; we make space for that. Everyone is uncomfortable at some point but we are going to remain in conversation and community about it.”

Santana-Grace was also overwhelmed by the way young people responded to her speaking voice, which comes across as raspy because of a health condition. She said the audience and worship leadership groups were not only encouraging of her voice but drawn to it, saying, “Ruth’s voice is just her!”

The stage for her week of sermons was set by her very first message, preaching on the “importance of claiming joy” along life’s journey. She invited those present to pause, sing and dance just as Moses and Miriam had done when they crossed the Red Sea. Life would always be littered with challenges some not of our making and celebrating the wins along the way serves as “encouragement fuel” for the next chapter. That first night ended with singing and dancing as DJ Boyd and Santana-Grace led the assembled in dance. It would be that spirit of encouragement that shaped her two weeks of ministry at Montreat.

Ruth Faith Santana-Grace on stage, Montreat Youth Conferences, 2023.

Ruth Faith Santana-Grace on stage, Montreat Youth Conferences, 2023.

Since returning to Philadelphia, Santana-Grace has wondered how the church can create more experiences like the Montreat Youth Conferences.

She’s not convinced that asking ‘How do we get more young people into church?’ is the right question. She prefers, ‘How do we come alongside our youth where they are engaged?’ That means meeting young people where they are on issues they’re passionate about, such as homelessness, racial and economic justice, climate change and bullying. “Age is not an issue,” she said. “It’s connecting with what’s in a person’s heart. Young people have such a purity of spirit. If they have a yearning, they can move mountains.”

She recommended “thinking of youth as a part of the community that needs to be integrated into the vital life of the church, not just programmed to.

“When my son was younger, session meetings and decision-making always got his attention more than worship services. Even if you don’t have many young people at your church, engage their leadership as a deacon or elder. Our tradition still leans on experience, which is why in the Presbytery of Philadelphia we try to make sure we have young pastors so they develop that experience.”

Santana-Grace said the church needs to “find ways to engage young people across distinct formation seasons,” such as middle school, high school and college as well as “the meandering years after college.” That means bringing young people together at places like Montreat or the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, but also mid council meetings and General Assemblies.

Keel said that young Presbyterians at Montreat “are responsible for some of the best work we do, which comes from their unique perspectives. Sometimes we can underestimate how much they’re paying attention to what the gospel says. They can see very quickly the points of hypocrisy and things that don’t add up.”

“What works the best and is most impactful is authenticity,” Keel said of ministry with young people. “Treating them as the children of God they are helps young people step into amazing places of creativity and love.”

Wilson said, “I would like the wider church to create more of an emphasis on how Christ’s love, unconditional love, can lead young Presbyterians to a fulfilled life regardless of what path they may take. [And] how that love can help not only oneself but everyone from any background.”

He plans to join McKinnon and Keel at the Montreat Youth Conferences next year, with McKinnon also looking forward to the Arts, Recreation & Worship Conference (ARW) at Montreat in May. Wilson prays for the opportunity to attend the 226th General Assembly as a youth representative for Peace River Presbytery.

At that General Assembly, Santana-Grace and Starling-Louis hope to see more youth participation. From the stage at Montreat, the Co-Moderators joined together to tell the hundreds of teenagers in the audience that some would be old enough to qualify as Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs) in the summer of 2024.

“We encouraged them to please please let their presbytery know they’re interested in going to Salt Lake City,” Santana-Grace said.