Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Love Anyway

by Michael Havercamp, director of Young Life Catholic Relations

Luke Ebener directs youth ministry at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church and leads WyldLife.

Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa) had a poem hung on the wall at Shishu Bhavan, her home for children in Calcutta. This poem is often referred to as the “Love Anyway” or “Do It Anyway” poem and is almost universally attributed to the Albanian nun whose calling to “the poorest of the poor” inspired the whole world. The poem was actually written by Kent Keith in 1968 when he was a sophomore at Harvard College, and the poem won worldwide acclaim only after it was discovered in 1997 after the death of Mother Teresa.

A couple weeks ago I couldn’t help but notice a similar poem scribbled on the wall of our parish youth minister who is also a Young Life leader. Luke Ebener is the director of Youth & Young Adult Ministry at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Davenport, Iowa, where he also serves as a WyldLife leader. Luke’s poem was enough to stop me in my tracks and encourage my spirit at a time when I really needed it. Borrowing from the scope and meter of the “Love Anyway” poem, Luke wrote:

Kids will make mistakes, disappoint you, break the rules, and take advantage of you. 
Love them anyway.
Kids will not return your phone calls and text messages and may laugh at your awkward attempts to connect with them. 
Pursue them anyway.
Kids will not accept your invitations. 
Invite them anyway.
Kids will avoid your questions and talk about anything but the topic at hand. 
Ask questions anyway.
Kids will think you are "too holy" or talk about Jesus too much. 
Be holy anyway.
Kids may not respond to all of the creative ways you try to articulate the Gospel. 
Be creative in communicating the Gospel anyway.
Kids will talk over you, not listen, be distracted, and not believe what you say. 
Speak truth anyway.
The seeds you plant in these kids today you may never see grow. 
Plant seeds anyway.
In the end, God isn’t going to ask you how these teens responded, how far they got while you were their leader, or how cool the kids think you are. He’s going to ask you if you loved them like He loves you. And did you witness the Good News of the Gospel?
Keep loving those teens. Keep fighting the good fight. The Spirit is alive in you.

Luke’s words speak to us all as we love kids, share the Gospel, and keep fighting the good fight. Even when our best efforts seem to come to naught, we keep working, believing in the resurrecting power of Jesus.

His words serve as a reminder to me in Catholic Relations. Even though what takes us years to build could experience roadblocks and setbacks, we need to build anyway. Even though the healed and reconciled hearts we foster today could tomorrow be wounded once again by small-mindedness and division, we need to heal and reconcile anyway. Even if the global call to a “new evangelization” could be mired in a mentality that says, “We’ve always done it this way,” we need to evangelize anyway. Because in the end, we trust that “no word from God will ever fail” (Luke 1:37). Yes, Jesus has promised us, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Young Life: A Tool to Revitalize Youth Ministry

by Deacon Nathan Gunn, Coordinator of Catholic Relations, Northeast Atlantic

As we begin 2020, I’m encouraged by what I’m witnessing here in the Eastern United States. Young Life is invigorating the work of Catholic youth ministers as they share the Good News with teenagers, and Catholic teenagers are using Young Life as a tool to evangelize their peers. This movement isn’t widespread yet; it’s just beginning in New Hampshire. The picture of the mustard seed comes to mind. Jesus said, “Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree…” (Matthew 13:32). In November, a group of Catholic priests, directors of religious education, and youth ministers from the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., gathered with Young Life staff members to discuss what it would look like to do ministry together (see photo above). At this meeting two youth ministry workers from St. Michael Parish shared how they are serving the kids of their parish while they do outreach in the community as Young Life volunteers. They shared stories about teenagers’ lives being changed as they use Young Life methods, and they talked about what it’s like to take Catholic kids to Young Life camp. “All of the people on staff, program team, and the work crew were incredibly welcoming and humble. They truly represented Jesus. We felt wanted and loved,” said Sammie Moore, who leads middle school students at St. Michael and has taken her kids to a Young Life camp. “Wyldlife camp has given me the opportunity as a youth minister to connect with some of my youth in a way that I was previously not able to.” The Catholic students and leaders at St. Michael have found that they can use Young Life’s outreach Club meetings for high school students and the WyldLife meetings for middle school students as venues to evangelize and share their personal faith. During the meeting in Manchester, the group talked about a paradigm of evangelization or “encounter” in middle school and how that could be followed by an opportunity for discipleship and formation through the high school years. Lisa Zolkos, who works for the diocese’s Catholic Schools Office, shared that she is a former Young Life kid who had a great experience with both her Catholic parish and Young Life as she grew up in Tampa, Fla. Since the meeting in November, there have been conversations about how Young Life could be used in Catholic schools throughout New Hampshire to bring the “New Evangelization” to bear in those critical venues. The November meeting was organized by Bishop Peter Libasci and Kelly Goudreau, the diocesan director of parish faith formation. Under Bishop Libasci’s direction, the Diocese of Manchester has adopted a “restored order” around the sacrament of confirmation. And as the diocese moves forward under that direction, people are enthusiastic about how Young Life can play a critical role in revitalizing youth ministry across the state. What could happen to young people across New Hampshire if parishes and Young Life worked together to ensure that “every kid” had the opportunity to at least hear that Jesus made them, knows them, and loves them? Can we even imagine a “tree” that could come from New Hampshire and bless us all?

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Coming Together through Mission

by Craig Gould, Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries in the Archdiocese of Baltimore

Before he worked for the Catholic Church, Craig Gould spent five years on staff for Young Life, and three of those years he served Young Life in Alaska.

At 7 pm on a cold February night in Anchorage, Alaska, two women and I are walking around a middle school, praying for the young people at that school to know Jesus Christ. I am white. The women are African American. I am 23 years old. The women are middle-aged. I’m a Roman Catholic praying quietly. They are Pentecostal, praying in tongues.

It was at that moment that I realized the unifying power of mission. Culturally, denominationally and even prayerfully, we were very different. I’ve never spoken in tongues, but I can say the Our Father fast enough where it almost sounds like I can. Despite our differences, we ventured out on a dark winter night to walk around an empty school because we shared this passion for young people to walk with Jesus as friend and Lord of their lives.

In the relationship between Protestants and Catholics, the focus has often been on what we have in common through belief—articles of faith and dogmas. This is an exceptionally important area for conversation and reconciliation. We only need to look at the Joint Declaration between Catholics and Lutherans to recognize how critical these agreements can be to the Body of Christ.

However, there is another way to look at our relationship and that is through the shared lens of mission. When you are working across denominational lines through the shared lens of mission, differences in church doctrine really take a backseat to the task at hand: spreading the Good News. And I’ve noticed marks of shared mission that echo the four marks of the Catholic Church. These create the unity we seek. In mission together, we can find agreement through:

Whether we are Young Life leaders in the halls of schools, Catholic priests serving remote parts of Asia, or missionaries in US cities, we have all left the comfortable places of our past and have journeyed into unknown territory to love others on behalf of Jesus. In an increasingly digital world, the power of being physically in front of another person is central to our mission.

Some people sacrifice a Friday night to build relationships with middle school students by taking them bowling. Some sacrifice their personal space to live in community with others as part of a post-college volunteer program. Others give up celebrating holidays with their families because of vows they took to a religious community. In all these cases, missionaries give up something to answer the call God has placed on their hearts.

Students of Culture
If our mission is to engage the culture with the Gospel, then learning to speak another language, learning what clothes are appropriate for which setting, and learning to celebrate the strengths and address the weaknesses of a society, are the hallmarks of a missionary. This desire to become like the “other” in order to share Jesus Christ is central to mission work.

Each missionary learns quickly that all resources belong to God and that they are simply stewards of what God decides they should have. Sometimes, as Saint Paul said, they are blessed with much. Other times, the blessings are slim. Missionaries in any capacity rely on the grace of God, which is often enacted through others. And missionaries know themselves to be constantly in need.

While this list is certainly not comprehensive, I believe it’s a good place to begin to stack hands. We can unite around our desire to be present, to make sacrifices, to be students of culture, and to depend on one another as we lean into God’s grace. This certainly seems to be what unified the early disciples who were at least as different as a Catholic New Englander and two Pentecostal Alaskans.

May we be one, in mission.

Friday, October 18, 2019

We Are on the Same Team

This guest post was written by Wynn Brown, a University of Notre Dame graduate and Young Life staff associate in South Bend, Ind.
Staff Associate Wynn Brown, left, and one of the high school students Wynn has befriended working for Young Life Michiana.

In the fall of 2015, I began college at the University of Notre Dame with some apprehension about Catholicism. Eighty percent of Notre Dame students identify as Catholic, but I was raised in an evangelical Protestant church. I knew little about the Catholic faith, and, I admit, what I had heard made me wonder if Catholics were “real” Christians. At a Young Life camp the summer before college, I found I thrived when I was surrounded by friends who shared my love of Jesus. So when I moved in at Notre Dame, I looked to Young Life for a Christian community of friends. Little did I know that I would befriend Catholic students who would change my definition of what constitutes “real” Christian faith. Little did I know that my Catholic theology courses would stretch and enrich my beliefs and lead me to earn a second degree in theology. I encountered many nominal Catholics at Notre Dame—people who identified as Catholic but who seemed to have nothing in their lives that set them apart as followers of Christ. I attended Catholic Mass and saw students who knew the routine but didn’t appear to enjoy it. Then I met Madi. Madi sang the same worship songs I did. She read the Bible. And when she offered to pray over our lunch one day, she started with “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and I expected to hear “Bless us, O Lord.” Instead, Madi thanked God for the food, the friends around us, and for the greatest gift of all, Jesus. She spoke as someone who clearly had a relationship with Christ. Faith for her was not a weekly religious requirement but something that connected with her soul. I started off seeking a business degree at Notre Dame, but along the way I took a C.S. Lewis class to fulfill a theology requirement. I was blown away that I could study things—things that I actually enjoyed—as part of my education. I just kept taking more and more theology classes until I had met the requirements for a second major. In addition to classes on Scripture, I read the works of Augustine, Therese of Lisieux, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Erasmus, and many others. These were mostly Catholic writers, and I found that I agreed with 99 percent of everything I read and was growing deeper in my faith in the process. Perhaps even more influential than the Catholic materials were the professors who taught me. These men and women cared deeply about the subjects they were teaching, and, more importantly, they cared about us and our faith. None of my business professors ever cried in front of the class because he or she so passionately connected with us or the material being discussed. One of my favorite classes was called “The Catholic Faith,” and in it we walked through Book One of the Catechism. After nearly every class, a friend and I would linger to ask the professor a few questions about little discrepancies between what we had been taught growing up and what he had mentioned in class. He would always welcome us with, “Hello, my Protestant friends!” I took other classes with him because I loved his teaching so much, and we developed a friendship. Toward the end of my senior year we sat down to lunch together, and I asked him for some advice on my future. He gave me some practical advice, and we chatted back and forth, but then he paused and started tearing up. He said, “Wynn, whatever you do, never lose your kind spirit. God has given you a unique gift. Don’t throw that away.” I received a lot of advice over this time, but that was the only career advice that really stuck with me. During my four years at Notre Dame, I volunteered with Young Life Michiana. And after graduation, I decided to stay in South Bend and work full-time for Young Life. I love Young Life’s mission to introduce adolescents to the person of Jesus and help them grow in their faith. And I love that Young Life is ecumenical: We are on the same team. My faith as a Protestant has grown through my exposure to the Catholic faith. And I hope that through the collaboration between Young Life and the Catholic Church, more Protestant Young Life leaders will come to appreciate the Catholic faith. I also hope more Catholics will come to know Young Life and want to join this effort to reach every kid with the love of Christ. In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes the purpose of his book this way:
It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.
I think Young Life has a similar goal, and it’s a goal Protestants and Catholics can tackle together. Young Life seeks to bring adolescents into the great hall of Christian faith. But no one is meant to live their life dwelling in the hall of Young Life. They must enter a room—a practicing church—to find deeper communion. Young Life is a funnel to churches: Protestant and Catholic churches. We encourage students to connect with the person of Jesus Christ. We desire a connection that lasts a lifetime. And we know a lifetime of faith can only be sustained within a church.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Young Life Grew My Vision for Catholic Ministry

This guest post was written by Amanda Jewett, youth and young adult minister at St. Cecelia Church in Beaverton, Ore. She serves on the Diocesan Committee on Young Life for the Archdiocese of Portland.

Catholic Youth Minister Amanda Jewett, far right, visited a Young Life camp in 2017.

Two summers ago I attended a Young Life camp in Eastern Oregon as an adult guest. I agreed to visit Washington Family Ranch not knowing much about Young Life. I was curious but did not anticipate that the experience would change the way I view youth ministry.

Similar to any summer camp, there were ropes courses, a zip line, and a swimming pool. But when it came to the program, I noticed right away that Young Life didn’t assume that the 400 campers had faith in God. Young Life expected that most students didn’t yet believe or were still questioning. And this assumption dictated the initial language, music, and message. God wasn’t mentioned a lot the first day, and all the songs were popular secular music. But over the course of a few days, God became the focus of everything. And as I looked around, I saw disconnected teens slowly become more comfortable talking about Jesus. By the end, teens were singing praise and worship songs as loudly and as passionately as they had sung the songs of Taylor Swift and One Direction. Teens were acknowledging their need for God and surrendering to Jesus.

What led to this transformation?

I watched as Young Life made it all about a relationship with Jesus first and foremost. All catechesis and faith formation follows naturally from this relationship or encounter with Christ. Without this foundation, catechesis can be lost or considered irrelevant.

Our Catholic youth need what Young Life prompts teens to develop: a relationship—not just head knowledge, not just the idea of faith—an actual relationship with the actual person of Jesus Christ, who loves us more infinitely and unconditionally than anyone else ever can. I saw Young Life reaching kids in a way I never experienced as a cradle Catholic and one who attended Catholic school from preschool to college, got a degree in theology, and now works for a Catholic parish. At camp, I saw an immense opportunity—an opportunity for these teens, whose lives were being intimately touched by God’s divine presence, but also an opportunity for the Catholic Church to improve its outreach to teens, especially in this day and age.

My exposure to Young Life taught me, as a Catholic, that I am called to go out, especially to the peripheries, so I can encounter teens and spread the Gospel, rather than wait for teens to come to me and my youth group. Like our pontiff Pope Francis has said, we are called to smell like the sheep, and I saw Young Life leaders doing this.

When watching the interactions at camp, I recognized that the Young Life leaders had real and authentic relationships with each one of their kids. Prior to camp, these leaders had gone out to football games, school plays, and robotics tournaments to find these teens, rather than wait for them to come meet the leaders at a Young Life club. Camp was a culmination of months of contact work and relationship building.

This is missionary discipleship. By the very nature of our baptism, we are called to “take on the smell of the sheep” and accompany people on their journeys to Christ. We are a missionary church, and Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28) is at the center of that. Should our parish ministries not reflect this as well, going (not staying!) and making disciples of all nations?

Our Catholic faith holds such beauty, depth, and richness, and my identity as a member of the Catholic Church is a source of personal pride and delight. For this reason, I want to learn from Young Life and become more effective in sharing my faith in Christ with teens.

At the time I was visiting the Young Life camp two years ago, my primary concerns at St. Cecilia circled around the number of kids who were attending our church youth group, how well they knew the Catechism, and how heavily involved they became in the life of the parish. All of those are important and play their own roles. Yet I had lost sight of the primary goal, the “why” of Catholic ministry: Do our parish teens have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and are they on the path to sainthood? I had to ask myself a difficult question: Does our youth ministry lead our teens to information, events, and programs, or to a PERSON?

In the two years since my visit to camp, I have engaged with the Young Life ministry in my area. I have befriended my Young Life counterpart who serves at a local high school, and we have done contact work together at the school. I have also joined a committee of Catholics and Protestants who are shepherding a collaborative effort between Young Life and the Catholic Church to reach more kids. As a part of this committee, I helped organize three joint worship nights where Catholic youth ministers and Protestant Young Life leaders met to get to know each other. Even though we are coming from different Christian denominations, we know many of the same kids, and we need to work together if we are going to reach every kid.

I lead youth ministry in Portland, where few claim to be Christian. Most teenagers here are disconnected from a church, and I desire nothing more than to help them find Christ. My exposure to Young Life has inspired me to help build bridges between different Christian denominations and, more importantly, between teenagers and God. I thank God for allowing his Spirit to move in this way, and I ask that He continues to bless and guide us in this work, as we go and make disciples of all nations.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Pope Francis: Let Them Lead from Their Calling

This guest post (the final installment in a four-part series) was written by Craig Gould, Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He is also a member of the Young Life Catholic Relations national board.

For our life on earth reaches full stature when it becomes an offering… It follows that every form of pastoral activity, formation and spirituality should be seen in the light of our Christian vocation. (Christ is Alive!, paragraph 254)
In the last blog, Let them Lead Everywhere, I wrote that Pope Francis’ call to ministry leaders was to let young people lead in all the different places where young people are living their lives, not simply within the bounds of the ministries we have created. For my final post on Christ is Alive!, I am highlighting Pope Francis’ invitation to let young people lead because they are called by God.  

If it’s the end of the school year, you can count on young people being asked vocational questions. The standard would be to graduating seniors as everyone wants to know what they will be doing next year. After 14 years of compulsory school, youth are free to choose what comes next. The decisions they make offer a real insight into how they conceive of their own calling and whether or not God has a place in that. Will they go to college? For two or four years? Will they go to trade school? Will they go right to work? Are they taking a “gap” year or doing a year of service somewhere? 

This question isn’t a surprise since young people have been answering it ever since they were 5, and their kindergarten teacher had them draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. The real surprise is that after all of this time, those of faith who have relationships with young people haven’t forced the next question, which is: “What is God calling you to do with your life?” If we don’t ask that question, they assume God is outside of this most central part of their life. And it may take years before they reconcile what they’ve said yes to along the way and what God is actually calling them to do. 

I had a phone call last week with a recent college graduate who has decided she wants to work in ministry although she just invested four years studying psychology. I had lunch this week with a friend who is fulfilling her calling as a high school campus minister but admits she spent her college years studying art and philosophy. She wonders whether her love for art fits in with her current work. And next week, I’m meeting with someone who is starting as a church youth minister after spending 30 years as an engineer. Despite their different ages, all three are asking themselves the same set of questions, vocational questions, questions about their gifts and God’s call.

That’s the other thing about vocation. It’s a constant question, or more accurately, a set of questions: 
What am I good at? What do I like? What does the world need? What are my responsibilities? How does being a disciple of Jesus Christ change any of the questions I just asked? How do I hear a call from God? If I make a wrong choice, will God not bless me? Does God only have one specific path for me? 
What I hear Christ is Alive! saying is that for too long those of us who love young people and who want to see Christ at the center of their lives have left them to figure out their calling with only the culture to guide them—a culture where success is measured in popularity, influence, money and attention. And that sounds more like an invitation from the rich young man mentioned in the Gospels than an invitation from the Lord of “sell everything you own and follow me.” Finding their calling with only the culture to guide them is really far from a community that considers itself “collectively responsible for accepting, motivating, encouraging and challenging” young people in their vocation (Christ is Alive!, paragraph 243).

I’d suggest these words push us as leaders of young people to ask ourselves tough questions about calling: 
How do we practice discernment in our own lives? Do we ask our young people questions about how they make decisions? Are we helping young people to identify their gifts and live those out? How do we help parents to see this decision through the eyes of faith? 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Pope Francis: Let Them Lead EVERYWHERE

This guest post (the third in a four-part series) was written by Craig Gould, Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He is also a member of the Young Life Catholic Relations national board.

'Popular' leaders, then, are those able to make everyone, including the poor, the vulnerable, the frail and the wounded, part of the forward march of youth. They do not shun or fear those young people who have experienced hurt or borne the weight of the cross. (Christ is Alive!, paragraph 231)
In the last blog, Pope Francis: Let Them Lead WITH You, I wrote that Pope Francis’ call to ministry leaders was to accompany young people as they lead. In this post, I want to focus on his even more radical vision for young people—that they would lead everywhere. 

There was a common strategy that was used to train me when I was learning to do youth ministry. It was believed that if you got the most popular kid to be active in the ministry, he or she would soon bring lots of other youth. It was purposeful, it was deliberate, sometimes it was successful, but it was elitist.

It was also not scriptural. If Paul and the Holy Spirit are to be consulted, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). Yet there I was trying to woo the captain of whatever team was in season, believing this to be the best strategy. It would take me a long time to realize that no one would have made Peter captain of anything. Or that Jesus’ tactics would have been criticized the minute he began with Matthew the tax collector.

In youth ministry the temptation is to gradually build up young leaders until we can hand over new levels of responsibility to them when they are ready. Pope Francis isn’t buying our perfectly scripted plan. He’s concerned because when we construct those processes, we are doing so with the intention of creating leaders who will perpetuate us and our programs. And when we do that, we’ve effectively created an exclusionary practice.

I believe the Holy Spirit is using Pope Francis to call us further out of our posture of superiority. How many times have I heard someone from the church or from Young Life complain because a young person didn’t prioritize youth group, or Campaigners, or club—as if their faithfulness to the gospel was measured on the scales of activity that we created? God’s vision for them is bigger than this, and our participation in His kingdom must be bigger as well.

The way I was initially trained had me excluding some students as I went after the popular kid. And it led me toward a rotten internal philosophy where I believed that by building a relationship with the popular kid I could somehow make him “mine,” and he would be an ambassador to draw kids to my (fill in the self-important event here). The Holy Spirit has always been too wild for that kind of manipulation. I am thankful that though it’s taken me a while to grasp it, Jesus has been patient with me.
How patient will young people be with us if we continue to try to fit them into tight windows where only a few will lead?
Where have young people shown incredible leadership outside of official church ministry?
How do I imagine growing the gifts of a young person outside of my structures for discipleship?
What gifts of leadership do we celebrate in young people?
Do we reserve congratulations only for a select few young leaders?