By Dyann Nashton
Sun contributing writer

Hearts were on a mission last weekend at a mini-conference held Oct. 24 in New Hartford. The celebration of faith continued at Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School the following day with a concert for the youth of local parishes. The “Hearts on a Mission” workshop was intended to bring learning opportunities in faith to the Diocese’s Eastern Region, said Andrea Slaven, director of the Eastern Region Office of Faith Formation.

Sponsored by Pflaum Publishing and Our Sunday Visitor, Saturday’s event was hosted by St. John the Evangelist Church. A morning assembly was followed by two different workshop sessions where participants could choose from a number of offerings, from Christian Morality to Liturgy 101 to Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment.

Morning assembly speaker Kevin Dowd presented “Using the Bully Pulpit: a Christian Response to the Violence of Bullying.” Dowd, a doctoral student at Boston College, said one of the biggest challenges is that the children who are being bullied are hiding in plain sight.

“They’re right in front of us,” he said.

He told the story of a special family recipe that required heating and stirring something until thickened. He said he stirred and stirred and nothing happened. So he kept stirring until suddenly, the filling became more gelatinous.

“This is what’s happening when working with kids and dealing with bullying. We have to keep the heat on and keep stirring. We don’t even realize that something is happening. But you can’t give up if you don’t see results right away.”

Dowd began working with bullying in 2010, a year that bullying and teen suicide received a lot of media attention. “There were 36 or 37 youth suicides that year and it caught President Obama’s attention,” he noted. He said Obama had made the point that bullying as a rite of passage was a myth and not a part of normal human behavior.

Dowd said that one of the biggest problems with getting a handle on bullying is that the various aspects of the community are “compartmentalized.” It is not simply a problem in the schools, but one that requires parents, spiritual leaders, law enforcement and families to work on together. “We all need to be on the same page,” he said.

A similar theme was raised in Franciscan Sister Caryn Crook’s presentation on “Laudato Si’: Living in Right Relationship with God, One Another and All Creation.” Pope Francis’ encyclical appeals to all by saying, “It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems…. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Sister Caryn said, “It’s all about interrelationships. Tiny streams impact the watershed. The watershed affects the wetlands. The wetlands affect the insects and the insects affect migratory patterns of birds.”

Pope Francis and the concept of integral ecology both address the idea that any number of different world crises should not be considered independent of each other: climate change, economic disparity and competition for resources. The solutions, Sister Caryn said, will be found in our ability to “get rid of the silos” and work together.

Attendee Sondra Nassar, a librarian at Notre Dame Elementary School in Utica, said they work hard to teach students to be “good stewards of the earth.“This is an important subject that needs to be tackled by all Christians. We need to practice what we preach.”

Nassar found the daylong workshop valuable. “More people should take the time out of their schedules to do things like this. Most of these people aren’t here because they have to be. They’re here because they want to be,” she said.

The following day, Andrew Lunetta, executive director of the Syracuse organization A Tiny Home for Good, addressed the region’s youth. The organization supports those facing homelessness by providing affordable, safe and dignified homes and fostering community partnerships. Lunetta returned to his organization with a carload of new sheets, pillowcases and towels that were donated by the region’s religious education students.

Lunetta’s presentation was followed by a concert featuring Catholic artist Fusion, and Catholic singer/songwriter Joe Perry. Fusion began a 25-city tour last fall. His mix of rap and hip hop complemented Perry’s more acoustic performance. Both performers were top 10 finalists in the National Catholic Youth Conference Top Talent Contest.

Julia Draves, a member of the Confirmation class of St. Patrick’s, Oneida, said the event was “fun and inspiring at the same time.” Her classmate, Ben O’Connell, added, “There was good energy with the performers and the audience. And the Tiny Home for Good — I want to be a part of that.”

More than 15 parishes were represented by youth at the concert. The event was underwritten for all the region’s youth by Mt. Carmel/Blessed Sacrament, St. Anthony/St. Agnes, Sacred Heart/St. Mary, St. John the Evangelist, Annunciation, Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Mary’s of Clinton, Holy Family, Historic Old St. John’s and St. Helena’s of Sherrill.

Dyann Nashton is a writer from Oneida, N.Y., in the Eastern Region of the Diocese of Syracuse.

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