Youth Ministry Helps Teens Grow in Faith
Kathy O'Brien has been the youth ministry leader at Glenmary's Erwin, Tenn., mission since arriving in fall 2012. In fact, through her last six mission assignments spanning 38 years, this ministry has been one of her key roles. And she's still as dedicated as ever to this work with high school students. "As I get older, they keep me young," she says. "I can see the Spirit moving in these young people. We have to keep the fire burning in them, because they're the Church's future."
Kathy, a Glenmary Lay Missioner, serves as the pastoral associate for the growing, diverse St. Michael faith community. With her fluency in Spanish, she has been largely responsible for outreach to Latinos in the mission county. But being the spiritual mentor for high schoolers does hold a special place in her heart. And it's clear these teens really want to be part of their mission's youth group.
She started the parish faith formation program for children and young people after coming to Erwin. The fledgling youth group consisted of four teens, and the meeting place was her living room. Two years later, she and 18 young people meet at the parish house and are involved in a range of activities at the mission, deanery, diocesan and national levels, supported by a number of adult volunteers and pastor Father Tom Charters.
"This ministry is very important because it's occurring at a very formative time in their lives," she says. "We can give them a vision of mission and Church, and do our best to strengthen them in their faith, before they go off to college or move away."
Being Catholic in a mission area is especially challenging for youth because they're a small minority. "They can be drawn away if we don't offer them a good alternative. We can help them develop their Catholic identity by getting more involved in their parish and doing faith-based activities together."
This identity seems important to all of them, she says—and to Latino kids as part of their culture, too. "The person who traditionally passes on the faith in their families is the grandmother. And most of their grandmothers are in Mexico. So I'm the ‘grandma' who guides them in faith."
In the past two years, confirmation was a required youth-group formation activity. From now on, it will very likely occur before high school. But all the kids confirmed last year have come back to the group again (except graduates). For Kathy, that means "they aren't coming because they have to. They really want to be part of it! And younger mission kids are extremely eager to join."
The group's schedule includes faith formation and many supporting activities. This year's formation focus—chosen by the group—is prayer. Each Sunday-evening session includes a fun activity; a lesson and discussion about prayer; time to ask Father Tom and Kathy any questions they want; future planning; and a meal.
Because of Kathy's leadership, the group also has many other opportunities to have positive new experiences, serve those in need, have fun and grow, and become more aware of the larger Church. Glenmary, the parish Knights of Columbus, and fellow parishioners generously provide some funding when needed. "And our group members have fundraisers such as car washes and tamale sales," she says.
Some examples of their activities include mountain hiking; helping coordinate a YMCA Bible school day and parish Vacation Bible School; serving meals to migrant workers; staffing a booth at a downtown "block party" to promote the mission, its youth activities, and an anti-drug/alcohol message; assisting the nearby Glenmary Group Volunteer Program staff; and doing other service projects.
In addition, members have attended the National Catholic Youth Conference; assisted with a diocesan retreat for middle-school students; and participated in diocesan events such as a weeklong youth camp (leadership formation) and weekend youth conference. Kathy adds that "in October, we're hosting an Appalachian Trail hike for deanery youth groups, including a prayer service."
Mission youth group members have even taken on diocesan-level leadership roles. Kathy nominated Luis Reynoso and Samuel Murillo for membership on the Diocesan Youth Ministry Advisory Council. "I've never had kids get so involved at that level!" she says. And Emily Briest serves on the diocesan-retreat peer team, which helps conduct SEARCH retreats for other teens.
"We call on them for leadership in our group, too. I encourage all group members to take on more responsibility."
To give an idea of the long-lasting impact of Kathy's work: She still hears from former members of all six of her youth groups, some now in their 50s! And some group alumni became active in parish ministry themselves.
Today, she says, the Erwin youth are still surprising her with their generosity and impressing her with wonderful ideas and leadership. Her goal is the same as always, with the Spirit's help: to nurture their Catholic faith and leadership as much as possible, so these gifts will be strong enough to carry them through their lives and impact many others along the way.
This article first appeared in the October 2014 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.