Wednesday, August 19, 2015

God at the Crossroads: Young Life and the Catholic Church in the Rio Grande Valley

Virgilio Elizondo, the famous Mexican American priest and theologian widely renowned as the founder of U.S. Latino theology, once asked, “Do you want to see, understand, and appreciate Jesus today?” He continued, “Then enter into the lives of those who are living similar experiences and struggles, those living in the ‘Galilees’ of this world, those living in the margins and crossroads. ”[1] Last week I found myself in just such a place, and no doubt I saw the face of Jesus.

Last week marked the second great phase in the important missionary partnership between Young Life and the border territories of the Diocese of Brownsville, TX. I was there alongside local Young Life and diocesan staff, to extend Bishop Flores’ vision that every kid in the valley would know Christ personally and reconnect to their Catholic faith community. An invitation was made to every Catholic priest, youth minister, volunteer and parent: Come and see how we can reach a world of kids in the Valley together.

Flying down I wondered whether anyone would show. I tried to envision what it would feel like to present this YL-Catholic initiative to a group of five people, ten people, maybe fifteen. I wondered whether this message would be met with resistance or indifference. I wondered, after all this work and investment, if God was really with us.

I was not prepared for the response.

More than one hundred of the warmest, liveliest, most humble, most wholehearted people gathered to listen, with great earnest, to the vision of Young Life and the Catholic Church working hand-in-hand for the gospel. In this forgotten frontier, in this place that is more than 95% Catholic, God’s presence took on flesh with smiling faces and bright, receptive eyes. God had not forgotten us. God was revealing himself to us.

Elizondo’s greatest insight, one that he spent a lifetime exploring, was that God was making a point when he chose the forgotten crossroads of Galilee to reveal himself. It was not in the political powers of Rome. It was not in the intellectual centers of Alexandria. “When God became human, he became a marginal, Galilean Jew, a village craftsman living on the periphery of the political, intellectual, and religious powers of the world.”[2]

These border towns of southern Texas are modern-day Galilees, veritable crossroads of culture, where Christ’s body is coming together. In Elizondo’s words, “these diverse peoples encounter one another not to fight, humiliate, or exclude one another, but to form new friendships, new families, and new beginnings.”[3]

Each of those 100+ people were invited to enter into a joint YL-Catholic leader training program where they will learn to walk side-by-side into the world of lost kids. Together we will learn to proclaim the gospel in a way kids understand. Together we will love kids in a way that embodies our message. And together we will reveal this place for what it really is – a modern-day Galilee, a crossroads where God has shown his face.

This picture was taken in Harlingen, just one of our meeting locations in the Rio Grande Valley

[1] Virgilio Elizondo, A God of Incredible Surprises: Jesus of Galileee, Landham, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.
[2] Virgilio Elizondo, “Jesus the Galilean Jew in Mestizo Theology,” Theological Studies 70 (June 2009), 273. Virgilio Elizondo is a Mexican-American pastor and theologian widely renowned as the founder of U.S. Latino theology. He joined the faculty of the University of Notre Dame in 1999 where he continues to teach as the Notre Dame Professor of Pastoral and Hispanic Theology and Fellow of the Institute for Latino Studies. His primary residence is San Antonio where he serves as parochial vicar of St. Rose of Lima parish.
[3] Ibid.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Catholic Reflections from Young Life Camp

This blog post was written by my lovely wife, Tasha, who spent the last week with me and 36 other guests at the Catholic Adult Guest Camp at Timber Wolf Lake, a Young Life camp in Michigan. Tasha serves as the director of evangelization and discipleship at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church and is also a professional photographer (although she would like it known that the beautiful picture below was taken by Kelsey Jenney, the camp speaker).
It’s quiet at Timber Wolf Lake.  The ten minutes of silence is finishing up and I finally gained a few minutes of solitude to myself.  Chasing our three children around while being here has proven to be a daunting task, a reality that hit me hard once again this morning.  Every year it's the same thing, the anticipation for an incredible week of camp and the amnesia of what it really means to be a staff person’s spouse when they have a role at camp I'm trying to wrangle three small children.  Oy vey. 

And yet today we hit our groove.  We enjoyed free time, conquered the zip line with both our six and three year olds, and managed some much needed rest for my soul and solitude with the Lord.  As I went back early and was putting kids to bed tonight I had some time to just think about all of this…

My life has been changed because of Christ.  That is completely transparent.  It’s who I am, it’s how I desire to live, and it informs my vocation in life.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to walk this world without Him.

And my heart has been filled because of Young Life.  I don’t know why I got lucky enough to experience what this mission is, to enjoy such kingdom living here on earth.  Michael said tonight, “It was a unmerited gift of God to be introduced to Young Life sixteen years ago (when he first went on staff),” and he is so right.  It has been a total gift to our life and our family.

It’s not Young Life in and of itself that is so powerful.  It’s not an organization or a mission statement.  It’s not even fancy buildings or intricately designed schedules. 

It’s an incarnational culture that is palpable.  It’s walking around outside and seeing people spontaneously praying for each other.  It’s meeting someone for the first time and they engage you with questions about your life.   It’s meeting someone for the first time and one of their initial questions is curiosity about how you came to know the Lord. It is FUN.  It is full of life and it is all about Jesus. 

I didn’t get this growing up.  I had an incredible Catholic upbringing and I knew who God was…but I didn’t get these messages about Jesus that cut right to the heart… messages that break through all the bondage and help me understand who He really is.  I didn’t know that I needed Jesus every day…in every relationship…not just in Mass or in a Catholic retreat or service trip.  And when those worlds came together I started to grasp living my Catholic Christianity…

As I was putting Jackson to bed tonight I talked to him about how tonight some kids would have quiet time with Jesus for the first time.  I also told him that some people here didn’t know Jesus, or didn’t have him in their hearts.  He was shocked.  “Really mom?  Like who?” 

“Well buddy we don’t really know who but we just know that they are out there.  We have to pray that God will open them up to receive him tonight.  We want everyone to have Christ in their hearts.”

Tonight my prayer was just that.  My prayer was that all these kids would just know and experience an ounce of that life-changing love of Jesus.  That they would feel pursued by God.  That they would sit in that silence and let go of all the lies and know the truth of Jesus message for them.

And I was brought to tears at the realization of how many kids will know that tonight.  Because they have been brought along by a leader, because they have been sought out, pursued, and known by someone who didn’t have to reach out to them.  Because they heard an incredible message.  Because they laughed in complete freedom for the first time in a long time this week.  Because they put away their cell phones and all the technology that gets in the way of real relationships.  Because they were able to walk away from all that may have once kept them in bondage.  Because they looked around and saw beauty like they’ve never seen it before.  Whatever has brought them to these ten minutes of silence, I prayed that Jesus would engulf them with love.  And I knew before I even said that prayer, that He was doing so at that very moment.  

We have had the incredible privilege of bringing some of our friends from back home to camp with us this week.  Catholic friends who we have been walking with in a couples study for almost a year.  Our priest, our youth minister, a teacher from our Catholic high school…and it’s like the Gospel message.  When you’ve experienced something this good (the way Christianity is lived out so authentically in Young Life) you just want to share it with those you love.  That is what this week has been.  Watching our friends and their kids experience the love of Jesus through the mission of this organization.  Amazing.

No one organization is perfect.  No one mission is complete.   Every institution in some sense will fall short because it is made up of sinners…but this Young Life mission that emphasizes the centrality of Jesus Christ has given my heart an understanding of how to love people and orient my heart to Jesus and it has enlivened my Catholic faith.  For that I am grateful. 

Last night as my son went to bed he was talking about one of his friends who had a rough day and was struggling with his time at camp.  Jackson says, “Mom this is the best place on earth because it’s all about the most important person…Jesus.”

Amen Jackson.  Amen. 

“For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity-the man Christ Jesus.  He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone.  This is the message that God gave to the world at just the right time…”  1 Timothy 2:5-6