Friday, May 27, 2016

Synergy in Syracuse: A Model of YL-Catholic Collaboration

Two weeks ago, I had the great privilege of attending an ordination ceremony in Syracuse, New York. But this was no ordinary ordination (as if any ordination is). On May 14, my dear friend and colleague Nathan Gunn became the first Young Life staff person ever to be ordained into the permanent diaconate of the Catholic Church.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral was packed. The excitement was palpable as the trumpets blared and the angelic choir sang the processional hymn, “Christ be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness.” Nathan’s lovely wife Tammy, his two teenaged sons, and a whole entourage of friends and family - Young Life staff and volunteers, Protestants and Catholics, kids and adults - joined Nathan in prayer, song and reverence. Goosebumps flushed through my skin as the Gloria rang out, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.” I glanced over to see Nathan fighting back the tears only to find myself caught up in the emotion too. The gravity of the occasion weighed heavy on my heart. This man was about to be ordained as a permanent sacramental sign of Jesus Christ, the Lord, who came “to serve and not be served.”

Young Life has been in Syracuse for a long time, but under Nathan (now Deacon) Gunn’s leadership the Catholic Church and Young Life have become real partners in reaching kids for Christ. Notre Dame graduate Brigid Clary is the youth minister at Holy Cross Catholic Church in town. She says, “I couldn’t do my job well if Young Life was not in Syracuse. They’re already in the hallways and at the ball games. YL leaders not only set an example of how to enter into the lives of kids, but they are constantly inviting me into it!” Further articulating the relationship, Clary comments:

Young Life staff and Catholic ministers have a real opportunity to be true partners in the mission.  It is challenging as a youth minister to focus both on evangelization and discipleship. With Young Life’s mission of reaching every kid, evangelization is happening already. New students are encountering Jesus every day thanks to the passion of Young Life leaders. The question to ask is, now what? And I think that is where the Catholic Church can step in.

Stephanie Cawley, a Young Life area director in North Syracuse, agrees. “Young Life is great at being on the “turf” of adolescent culture,” she says. “The Catholic Church is great at offering kids a home that will nurture them beyond their high school years.” A practicing Catholic herself, Stephanie recognizes the strengths that both Young Life and the Church bring to the table. “Young Life excels in building relationships. The Church excels in sacramental and liturgical living. Both are so valuable as we journey with Christ.”

Part of Young Life’s success in Syracuse has been their commitment to reflect the communities they serve. In a metro area that is over 62% Catholic, that has meant being intentional about inviting Catholic committee members, volunteers and staff into the ministry of Young Life.  Nathan says, “At the heart of incarnational ministry is being representative of the community we serve.  As a Mission, it’s both a great challenge and blessing to find ways to integrate into the worship lives of all the churches we work with.”  That integration has led to many practical and fruitful collaborations:  combined Wyldlife Clubs, extensive sharing of YL Camps for Summer and Weekends, Catholic Churches hosting Campaigners, a 10-year tradition of taking high school students to serve in rural El Salvador, the creation of an inner city summer service opportunity… the list goes on and on.

Leanne Sherwood, YL area director in Syracuse East, believes that Catholics should be considered as potential partners in Young Life’s mission in every area:

If we never invite Catholics into the ministry of Young Life, we’re really missing a whole segment of the Church. We’re not utilizing a huge part of the body of Christ. By having Catholic staff and volunteers on our teams, we’re living out the bigger picture of the kingdom of God. I can’t overstate how valuable this is and how much of an impact this can have on your local area!

This is particularly true in areas where Catholicism is so prevalent. In places like the northeast or the southwest where as much as 98% of the population is Catholic, one can hardly imagine an effective ministry strategy without the Catholic Church. Cawley says, “Syracuse has a large Catholic population. At least half of our ‘churched’ kids grew up in the Catholic Church. Being on the same team as we reach kids makes both Young Life and the Church more effective.”

Our staff in Syracuse are dreaming the big dream. What if Protestants and Catholics came together to lift teens up to Jesus? What if the relationship between Young Life and the Catholic Church was marked by mutual support and prayer, healthy communication and shared victories, comfort in suffering and continual growth in love and humility? The dream is becoming a reality and we tip our hats to Deacon Gunn and the rest of the YL Syracuse crew who are making it happen.