Former Out-Spokin' staff spent Labor Day weekend reminiscing at Laurelville Retreat Center near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thirty-five of us celebrated, laughed, cried, and shared memories of how lives unfolded over the 50 years since Terry Burkhalter founded Out-Spokin' – Christian community formed on 10 speed bicycles.
The mission of Out-Spokin' was to engage youth on 10-speed bicycles, teaching them along the way to safely ride in clusters of six people and to create community, have fun, and deepen their relationship with God. During breaks, staff and bikers would play games and sing silly songs, and participants were encouraged to experience God through nature. Often experiencing God's daily provisions, evening campfires with devotions, and sharing were significant experiences, as well as meeting people along our routes. Another uniqueness of Out-Spokin' was that through dealing with heat, rain, hills and wind, people dropped their facades and became more authentic with each other, creating real church and Christian community outside the walls of the traditional church setting.
The first evening of the reunion was spent catching up on life for every member present. Throughout the weekend, there was a pervasive sense of gratitude for the church and individuals who supported the program financially and in other tangible ways, for God's presence over countless miles, and for life-changing relationships between staff members and between staffers and bikers.
Stories were told of God's faithfulness in walking through life with our experiences, gifts, challenges and passions, along with the knowledge of how important community has been to us as we journey through our individual seasons of life. Amazingly, even though many of us have not been in touch in many years, we were able to comfortably share our joys and struggles because our history together had given us the depth of relationships through a shared common vision.
Sunday, we gathered again and after fun wake-up songs and hymns, we shared a devotional from 1 Corinthians 3:11, focused on how Jesus Christ is our foundation. Then Terry Burkhalter shared about the first three years of Out-Spokin'. After two years, he started discussion with Ray Horst and Dwayne Johns to incorporate this program into Mennonite Board of Missions, which coordinated the Voluntary Service program. In 1971, that happened, and Jerry Miller became director until its final trip in 1982. Almost all Out-Spokin' staff served through the Voluntary Service program, and Jerry played a key role in mentoring scores of personnel between the ages of 18-26. In our session Sunday evening, Jerry shared the reason for closure of Out-Spokin' – a painful decision for all involved. Mission dollars were being stretched in so many ways that the consensus was that this program, though valuable, would need to close.
Most of us reported that someone saw potential in us and tapped us on the shoulder to serve on the Out-Spokin' staff even though we were as young as 18 to 26 years of age. We all agreed that we gained an appreciation of Christian community, God's care for our needs, the beauty of creation, importance of fun and laughter, and family and friend prayer support. A resounding message was that we want to be the people who intentionally are tapping younger persons as we see their gifts and skills, to become part of some form of mission within a Christian structure, or as the hands and feet of Jesus in their school, career and families.
As we look toward the future of the church, there was a collective hope for new, unconventional programs that would meet the needs of the Millennial generation, a generation that has lost identity with traditional church structures yet longs for authentic relationships with others and with God. May such programs be given birth and be as radical as Out-Spokin' was 50 years ago.