“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a child over, placed him in their midst…“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18: 2,4)
This week I was in northern California, where Catholic Extension supports many under-resourced communities, and came face to face with the church’s fervent outreach to children and teens. The challenges these kids face are mind-boggling and the stakes are high – but I like our odds in this uphill battle. I like our odds because I’ve seen what the Church’s presence can mean for these kids, and I’ve seen these brave young people answering the call to leadership.
I visited a town with an estimated 3,000 active gang members. Many young people are caught in the crossfire, and they’ve had enough. They also realize they hold the keys to change.
We visited a couple of youth groups from different parishes. What we discovered is that these groups are more than just mechanisms for keeping kids out of harm’s way. They help change the kids’ perceptions of themselves and what they have to offer.
“So, what are your gifts?” I asked them. “An ability to focus,” said one. “An ability to be strategic,” responded another. One young woman said, “This church represents who we are, and this is where we feel most comfortable.”
I was invited to speak to a group of about 50 teens gathered at one of the parishes we visited. “I come from an organization that tries to tell Catholics around the country about the challenges that other Catholics are facing in little-known areas,” I said, “and the incredibly powerful things people like you are doing in the face of such opposition.”
The day happened to be Nov 1, the Feast of All Saints. I told them how appropriate it was to gather on the occasion of this centuries-old feast commemorating all the heroes and heroines of our faith. “After listening to your incredibly powerful stories,” I said, “it is clear to me that there are true heroes, saints, emerging in this very room.”
How fortunate I felt to be hearing their message to America.
“We want people to know that we are good, that we have something to share,” a young woman told me after the meeting. Then, without skipping a beat, she went to the wall of the parish hall where we were gathered and she pulled down a handmade poster decorated with rival gang colors on either side. In the middle of the poster was a cross and the word, “united.” “Take this poster,” she said, “let people know everything we are doing to change our community.”
Adult leaders of these parish youth groups are equally impressive. They believe that faith in a loving God and support from a nurturing church community can transform kids who will ultimately transform the world. One adult volunteer leader said to me, “I am here working with these youth because I want to develop people of faith and good community leaders.” He went on, “If I could just save 100 kids I would do this work, if I could save 50, I would do this, if I could save 30, likewise, and if I could just save even one kid, this work would be worth it for me.”
Our opportunity as Catholics to impact young people’s lives across our country is real. In 2011, as we celebrate World Youth Day, Frank and I will keep you posted on the many ways Catholic Extension wants to increase support of the Church’s outreach to young people across the country. They represent many cultures and economic backgrounds. Yet, they share one thing in common: despite struggles and challenges, they are becoming ready and willing leaders in the faith and in their communities.
It’s going to be an exciting year for all who are Catholic to rally around our young people, and cultivate today’s young saints who will breathe new life into our nation.
– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management
For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Joe on Twitter.