Accent on Youth

April 8-14, 2004
Accent on Youth
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Conference Offers Guidelines for Youth Ministers

BINGHAMTON –– More than 155 youth ministers representing eight dioceses across New York State gathered on March 26 – 28 to cultivate the vision of Catholic Youth Ministry in New York State. Topics covered included social justice, cultural diversity and acceptance, freedom and changing the system, attitudes and structures that perpetuate injustice. Keynote speakers Kim and Reggie Harris began the conference on Saturday morning with songs and stories of diversity, culture, slavery and freedom. The messages from their re-telling of an African-American story by Virginia Hamilton were “when you seek freedom, you should take someone with you, pay attention and remember who you are.”

The Harrises shared with the audience their ideas on how they get the message of freedom out to youth. “What do we think freedom looks like when God brings us to exile?” they asked. The couple suggested a way for the youth ministers to teach their students about freedom: ask the youth to write their ideas of freedom on leaves and attach those leaves to one main tree. “It doesn’t take long before you see a collision of ideas that flow from one person to another,” said Kim. “Take the true differences from each other and then come together to discuss what freedom looks like,” she suggested. The Harrises then asked the audience to describe what freedom looks like for them. “Freedom looks like forgiveness,” said one participant. “Freedom is unconditional love,” said another. “Freedom is accepting who a person is and letting them be that person,” said a third member of the group.

After hearing several definitions of freedom, the Harrises explained that each definition of freedom translates into a way of living. From there, the topic turned to cultural diversity and acceptance. “Doing things our way is not the only way,” said Kim. “How can God help us help each other to be more open to see each other’s differences? Many things about our faith path need to be opened up. Our ideas of freedom of worship are different than young people’s.” The Harrises, who grew up in Philadelphia and now live in upstate New York, began their ministry in 1977 as leaders of song and workshops for CYO conventions. They have been traveling and speaking since 1980. When asked what they feel is the most important message to impart, Kim replied, “To remember history in order to teach how to live more faithfully now.” The Harrises have studied African and American history and how faith plays a big part in that history. Kim gave the example of the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman’s important role in the history of freedom. “She was a woman of faith,” said Kim. “Children learn about her in school. Her faith led her to help other people.”

After the Harrises presentation, the participants separated into groups and attended various workshops. Denise Garrett, a parishioner at Our Lady of Solace Parish in Syracuse, works with at-risk students at George Junior Republic Union Free School in Freeville, N.Y. She facilitated the “Ministry to At-Risk Youth” Seminar at the conference. When asked how she thought the Catholic Church could positively impact at-risk youth, she first explained that all children have the potential to be at-risk. “We can minister to them by giving them opportunities for becoming who they are in Christ,” she said. Garrett said it’s important to reach out to those who may not necessarily be open to adult advice or willing to attend organized programs. Garrett said that she embraces the concept of Sister Eileen McCann’s CSJ, “for,” “with” and ”by” when ministering to youth.

Sister Eileen McCann explained that the “for” is adults ministering for youth in the role of advocacy. “By” is the process where kids minister to each other or to adults and “with” is a way that adults and teens together minister to bring about the reign of God. Garret shared with her group suggestions on how to work with at-risk youth. “Do not attempt to counsel anyone unless you are professionally trained to do so,” she said. “Do not to succumb to the national mythology of at-risk youth. Broad generalizations about youth can detract from target efforts to address real, not perceived problems,” explained Garrett.

Garrett further explained that as youth ministers and teachers, adults have to be careful about the messages that are sent to young people. “Unwarranted pessimism about one’s generation, reinforced by negative and false publicity can damage the confidence young people have of themselves and their future,” said Garrett. The topics Garrett introduced stimulated much conversation among the group. Karen Michaels, a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Syracuse, said she enjoyed learning how to relate to kids at their level, especially through music. “Music always gets their attention,” she said. Michaels added that parents should be informed about what their children are doing, challenge them about their plans and make them accountable for their actions. “Too many parents feel it’s so much easier to let them have their own way than to teach what is right from wrong,” said Michaels. “We all need to teach by example.”

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