This summer, I had the opportunity to lead my fourth class of rising ninth graders—the Class of 2018—on an eight-day leadership trip to Gettysburg and Washington, D.C. This racially diverse group of 24 students represented 7 different schools and 14 different churches here in St. Louis.
The amazing journey for our students was a culmination of what is now called the Imago Dei Leadership Forum (IDLF). The class began meeting in February with 12 two-hour weekly sessions on what it means to be an image-bearer of God in how we view ourselves, others, and the world around us.
I would love to share with you our time in Gettysburg and D.C. in a diary format. I pray that you will be encouraged as I was by what the LORD did in the lives of these young people.
Day 1 (Saturday)
We spent 18 hours on the bus ride from St. Louis to Gettysburg, PA. It was a ideal time for the students to bond and get to know one another—as we did trivia with prizes every hour on the hour! As a matter of fact, we watched The Greatest Showman—which interestingly set the tone of what it means to value others different than ourselves—treating them as image-bearers of God.
Day 2 (Sunday)
We started the day with a worship service at Middle Creek Lodge (located 10 minutes from Gettysburg). We enjoyed a time of singing, individual (private) prayers of confession, and Scripture study. We read from Acts 20:17-38, as we looked at Paul’s leadership and his charge to the elders in the church of Ephesus. We observed how leadership discussions should always include the importance of character (v.19), courage (v.20), conviction (v.21), crucible (v.22-23), course (v.24), and a charge (v.25-28). For application, we watched two scenes from the film 42, and had some great discussions on the ways Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and Pee Wee Reese emulated the above traits. These leadership traits served as a key reference point, as we reflected on them with the various leaders we learned about and met throughout the trip.
Gettysburg Visitors Center
We began our tour of Gettysburg by spending time at the Visitors Center (http://www.gettysburgfoundation.org/10). We watched A New Birth of Freedom (a film narrated by Morgan Freeman) before experiencing the Cyclorama, the nation’s largest oil painting. The students were amazed not only by the battlefield stories but by the painting itself. We then heard from a park ranger who spoke on what it was like to be a Civil War soldier and the challenges soldiers faced in this time period. We finished up at the Civil War Museum—walking through the history of the Civil War—as we prepared for our time on the battlefields tomorrow.
Back at the Lodge
After dinner, we gathered for our first group session on the importance of leading with a biblical worldview. We then watched Part 1 of the film Gettysburg to prepare for our Monday morning and afternoon tours. We focused on the leadership of four individuals—Generals James Longstreet and Robert E. Lee for the Confederate army and Colonels Joshua Chamberlain and John Buford for the Union Army.
Day 3 (Monday)
The Battlefields of Gettysburg
We had another full morning and afternoon exploring Gettysburg. Today was our “outside” day—exploring the battlefields representing Day 1, 2, and 3 (July 1-3, 1863) of the Battle of Gettysburg. We envisioned what it was like to be a soldier in the exact surroundings, as we examined the strategies that helped the Union defeat the Confederates. We especially spent time on Little Round Top, exploring the courage and amazing leadership of Col. Joshua Chamberlain, and walking “The Long Mile” of Pickett’s Charge.
Back at the Lodge
Similar to last night, after dinner we had another Group Session where we continued exploring how leadership often calls for courage in the face of adversity. We studied Joshua’s commission by God (Joshua 1) and the challenges and encouragement the LORD gave him to lead His people into the Promised Land. We applied this to the courage of Joshua Chamberlain, as well as a scene from The Blind Side showing the courage, character, and faith of Michael Oher and the Tuohy family. The students were active participants in the discussion — as we compared these challenges to ones they will face in high school and the importance of having a firm foundation in Christ.
We ended our evening by watching Part 2 of the film Gettysburg, and the powerful scene of the Battle of Little Round Top—led by Col. Joshua Chamberlain. The students were captivated by the fact they walked the same ground where the battle was fought (and filmed!).
Day 4 (Tuesday)
We had a meaningful day, which I hope the students will remember for a long, long time. After a devotional on the Apostle Peter and his courage and leadership, we viewed Part 3 of Gettysburg. I was so encouraged by the students’ reaction to this film, especially how they were moved by the sacrifice that was made in this final day of battle—particularly the tragic Pickett’s Charge. As an aside, Director Ron Maxwell did a great job developing the characters of the film so you care when they die. He did not bombard viewers with blood and gore—which makes it not only more watchable, but moving too. Furthermore, these movie scenes were filmed on the exact ground we walked yesterday.
Gettysburg National Cemetery
We then visited Gettysburg National Cemetery and read numerous tombstones of those who gave their lives. We were also impacted by the markers that showed other veterans who have died over the years up to the Vietnam War. Lincoln’s idea of a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” assumed a new meaning to the students as they stood in the Gettysburg Cemetery, surrounded by markers of hundreds of soldiers, and took turns reciting lines from Lincoln’s 272-word speech. To this point, we had a great reflection time that evening and a number of students shared how they were inspired/impressed by our time here—especially how many soldiers were willing to give their lives so others could be free.
Arrival in DC
After leaving the Gettysburg Cemetery, it was time to head to D.C. to examine the powerful influences of media and government and the importance of moral leadership and Christian principles in these fields. Arriving at the National Mall, our students were able to walk around and enjoy views of the Washington Monument, the WWII Memorial, the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Lincoln Memorial.
Our next stop was the Woodson Center. Founder and President Bob Woodson—a MacArthur Genius Fellowship and Presidential Citizens Medal recipient—met with our students for over an hour! (http://woodsoncenter.org) Mr. Woodson is a man of great faith in Christ. He exudes humility even though he has advised various U.S. Presidents and currently advises Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. The students had a wonderful dialogue with Mr. Woodson and did a great job engaging him and asking thoughtful questions! He is doing amazing work in some of the most difficult schools and communities across the country that many view as hopeless.
We wrapped up our day at a Food Network’s own Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace, and then debriefed about our time at the Gettysburg National Cemetery and with Bob Woodson.
Day 5 (Wednesday)
Our day began early on Capitol Hill, as we met with Congressman Robert Aderholt from Alabama. Robert took us down to the House floor (!) and allowed us to sit in the seats typically occupied by congressmen while voting or listening to the State of the Union Address. It was amazing! When our students arrived on the floor, they were surprised to see the national motto “In God We Trust” in gold letters above the Speaker’s chair (not something you see during the State of the Union Address). Furthermore, they viewed a marble relief of Moses hanging directly opposite the Speaker’s chair—the only full-face portrait of historical lawgivers found on the walls of the House chamber. Finally, our students learned that the House and Senate have chaplains—both of whom open each session in prayer.
Members of Congressman Aderholt’s staff then led us on a tour of the Rotunda, Statuary Hall and some other parts of the Capitol afterward before it was open to the public. It was here that our students encountered six magnificent paintings—three of which captured significant religious events—the prayer service following Columbus landing in the West, the baptism of Pocahontas at Jamestown, and the Pilgrims (with an open Bible) praying before their departure from Holland to America.
We then moved to the Russell Senate Office Building to participate in “Missouri Mornings” with Senator Roy Blunt. In addition to meeting the senator, we spoke at length with several of his interns. One of the interns took us on the underground Senate subway to the Capitol Visitor’s Center, where we viewed beautiful statues of famous Americans—from the early 1700s to the present. One of the highlights of this tour was watching Congress in action—debating current events of the day
After a wonderful lunch at the Capitol, we joined our next speaker—U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black. He was a highlight for many of the students, for he was engaging, funny, deep, concise, and relevant. Chaplain Black shared his amazing personal testimony of being born in the poorest neighborhood in Baltimore to rising to his current position today. He is a man of great wisdom and very motivational. Attributing his Christian education to changing his life and preparing him for his future roles in the Navy and D.C., he encouraged all of us to grow in wisdom, pray for the Holy Spirit’s power and presence, and be willing to go the extra mile.
Cal Thomas and the Newseum
Our final speaker of the day was Cal Thomas—a syndicated columnist who appears in hundreds of newspapers, Fox News, and other media outlets regularly. Cal was an engaging, humorous, and insightful, speaker. When asked what makes a good journalist, he emphasized the importance of reading good writers, knowing history, pursuing wisdom through reading the Scriptures, and getting advice from older people.
After our time with Cal, we toured the Newseum. It is such a fascinating venue! We spent time at the 9/11 exhibit, the Berlin Wall exhibit, the Broadcast Journalism Arena, the Civil Rights area, and much much more.
In the evening, we processed the day’s conversations with the leaders and how they are seeking to honor God with their gifts and talents.
Day 6 (Thursday)
Our morning began at Starbucks(!) at the historic Union Station. After filling up on caffeine and pastries, we walked to the U.S. Supreme Court—where we had a wonderful behind the scenes tour with Eric Tung—a clerk for Justice Neil Gorsuch. Eric—a brilliant lawyer in his own right—gave a fascinating explanation of the clerks’ work and support for the Justices they work with. We visited his office and met several of his colleagues—one who graduated first in his class from Harvard Law School. We discussed the philosophical difference between viewing the Constitution from an “originalist” perspective vs. a “living document.” We also reflected on numerous important decisions that had just been released the week before we arrived—particularly landmark cases on religious liberty. Speaking of Courts, one of the major highlights of Eric’s tour was getting to play on the basketball gym located directly above the Court chamber—known as the “Highest Court in the Land!”
National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)
It was a huge answer to prayer that we were able to get tickets to this incredibly moving museum! A big thank you goes out to our parents who got up at 5:30am St. Louis time to go online and help us get the 28 tickets we needed! Words don’t express the powerful story and history that is captured here—a number of students (boys and girls) were in tears. (As a matter of fact, it was the D.C. place many of them selected as the most meaningful in their trip reflections!) We had a interesting debriefing that night about our time with evening speaker, Dede Winkfield, who made what they experienced at the NMAAHC very real and personal.
Dede, a teacher at the National Presbyterian School in D.C. worked with me for 6 years at Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, MD. Dede’s family was very close to Dr. Martin Luther King’s family, for her mom was Dr. King’s assistant and oversaw his press relations for a number of years. (As an aside, her uncle was a Tuskegee Airman!) Dede spoke for over an hour about growing up during the Civil Rights Movement–being the first African American to integrate her private Catholic school in Albany, GA–and reflected on her personal memories of Uncle Martin and Aunt Coretta. Our time with her was invaluable, and we were so grateful for her honesty and vulnerability.
Day 7 (Friday)
After breakfast at the Starbucks near American University, we headed to the MLK, Jr. Memorial to kick-off our last day in D.C. Sadly, when the students visited the site honoring the great civil rights leader, they discovered no mention of his faith. In fact, none of the 14 quotations of Dr. King referenced God (see my August 14, 2013 USA Today article entitled, “Where’s God in Celebration of MLK?” for more details). Nevertheless, we focused on the importance of Dr. King’s work and the milestone that he is the only non-President to have a national monument built for him in D.C.
We then traveled to the Heritage Foundation, a D.C. think tank that works to promote traditional values. Focus on the Family’s Tim Goeglein (another student favorite!) spoke with our students. Tim, the chief lobbyist for Focus on the Family, wonderfully engaged them on how to live as a Christian in today’s tough political climate and the importance of godly character—which we demonstrated from stories of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency.
The Lincoln Memorial
Speaking of Lincoln, we transitioned to the Lincoln Memorial after our time at Heritage–standing in the footsteps where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” To me, this was the most meaningful and moving part of the trip, as we brought racially diverse students and chaperones together to read Dr. King’s speech. Our vision for Imago Dei Leadership Forum is to train up a generation that treats one another as image-bearers of God—fulfilling Dr. King’s dream and God’s command to love others as we love ourselves. My favorite reader was Carla Bailey. She passionately read the conclusion of Dr. King’s speech—bringing many of us to tears and drawing applause from many of the tourists who listened to our presentation.
Congressman Lacy Clay
Afterwards, we made our way to Congressman Lacy Clay’s office who represents several areas of the St. Louis region. He was warm and candid, and we were grateful for his hospitality. He was very open and passionate about his beliefs, presenting a very different perspective from many of us in the room. He discussed the toxic political environment in D.C. and the importance of being able to treat others respectfully and trying to find common ground with those who share different political views. As an aside, he let one of our students sit in his desk chair and was excited to learn he knew several of our students’ parents!
The National Gallery
The next stop of the day was the National Gallery, the art museum which is part of the Smithsonian network. My friend Susan Scola (a former docent at the Gallery and superb history teacher at Christ Episcopal School) gave us a thought-provoking Race & History Tour—concluding with the Shaw Memorial, which memorializes the 54th Massachusetts (the all-black regiment featured in the movie Glory!) We were all encouraged at how engaged and interested the students were!
Our last stop of the trip was Fox News Studios. Our students were able to get a private tour, as well as read from the teleprompter and see themselves on TV. More importantly, they were able to hear from anchor Shannon Bream, who discussed the powerful influence of media. She helped explain the difference between shows that do hard news vs. those who center around the opinion of the host. As a hard news anchor, Shannon shared the importance of her show’s role to try and present a balanced view of the news and provide voices for both sides of an issue when applicable. She is a very godly, talented woman—using her gifts and talents to be a great witness to Christ to hundreds of thousands of nightly viewers.
Day 8 (Saturday)
We boarded the bus and made the long journey home to St. Louis a fully bonded group. What a blessing to see our students come together so well! I pray that the Class of 2018 will long remember the deep faith, courage, and leadership they witnessed—both past and present—on this journey. My prayer is that God will continue to use the moments and revelations from this trip—reinforcing St. Paul’s challenge to the church of Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For as they apply this truth as image-bearers of God, they will be equipped to engage their generation for Jesus Christ.