NEW ORLEANS - Between Thursday and Sunday, a trip to the Central Business District or French Quarter could mean extra driving challenges. There are 35,000 young people, their adult chaperones and volunteers in New Orleans for the Youth Gathering of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
For tens of thousands of young people, the gathering is a four-day religious experience coupled with the chance to make a difference in the lives of others.
They meet every three years, and their last session in 2009 was also held in New Orleans.
"Your community impacted our young people with their wonderful hospitality and their great, deep gratitude. Our young people need to hear that they they are cared for and loved and appreciated. That is one thing that we've learned deeply from this community," said Heidi Hagstorm, the Youth Gathering director.
This year's event, "Citizens with the Saints," is an opportunity to explore their faith and gain a better understanding of their church and its mission.
It also encourages them to help others. They'll participate in community service activities for nearly 50 different organizations, including the New Orleans Recreation Department, UNITY, Second Harvest Food Bank and the St. Bernard Project.
They've been collecting 1,000,000 books for New Orleans children and plan to pack a book bag for every third and fourth-grader in Orleans and Jefferson parish.
"What we hope to see is actual changed lives, that the teens who come here will be impacted by what they do, by what they see, that they're going to go home to their places and be changed people," said organizer Pastor Sean Ewbank in July 2009.
They are also encouraged to learn from the people and culture of New Orleans.
City leaders warn drivers to be prepared for lots of extra traffic, with 150 buses at the Superdome each day and thousands of teens walking through the CBD and Vieux Carre.