Five years ago, Kristine Johnson returned to the Catholic Church after close to thirty years away. After taking classes to refresh her memory on Church teaching, she became a volunteer catechist. Now, she’s volunteering to lead Youth Ministry at St. Rita Parish in Dade City, which is a brand new initiative.
In her work with the teens of the parish, Johnson and the other members of the committee are helping young people to grow in their spiritual life through a personal encounter with Christ, to discover and develop their sense of belonging to the Church and to increase their gifts and talents by serving the community. At the same time the teens are growing spiritually, Johnson said her own faith is deepening as well.
“Recently we did small group reflection on the topic of evangelization and I was very impressed and humbled by the depth of thought and faith of these teens and by their willingness to speak openly about their faith. I was the adult facilitator, but I felt like I was the one who walked away having learned the most,” said Johnson.
Their Youth Ministry started to come together last summer to align with the bishop’s goal of 100 percent of parishes establishing or enhancing their youth ministry programs. Sister Norma Ines convened a committee of both youth and adults from the Anglo and Hispanic communities to establish a basic framework for the new ministry. When Sister Norma was transferred back to Mexico, she asked Kristine Johnson to take over leadership of the committee.
“Google Translate has become our best friend!” said Johnson, noting that while communication can be challenging at times, the diversity of the group has been a tremendous blessing. “It has been a wonderful experience to work with this committee. I’ve noticed that the English-speaking members of our team (including myself) are quite matter-of-fact and goal-oriented in their approach, while the Spanish speaking members seem to be more reflective and faith-driven. We are a diverse group with many complementary strengths that work well together to provide a balanced approach for the teens.”
The group only met three times in 2019, coming together monthly for an icebreaker, prayer, activities, reflections and of course – food. But already in the short time that they have been meeting, the group has also visited a neighboring youth group at St. Joseph Parish in Zephyrhills, gone to a local migrant farm to interact with the children and bring donations and helped prepare and distribute Thanksgiving bags with the Saint Vincent de Paul ministry. Beginning in 2020, the group will meet twice a month as well as continue to offer service opportunities. The parishioners and pastor, Father Machado, have been supportive of the Youth Group and are providing donations, prayers and other assistance.
“I think it’s very important, especially in the age group that we’re targeting, to have youth group because this is the age where we start drifting away from God and we start questioning a lot of things and not wanting to wake up early for Mass,” said Dulce, a sixteen-year-old parishioner who is active in the ministry and was part of a focus group last summer. “It gives us a way to get to know others our age and talk about God and make our faith stronger. We are learning so much from our peers and from the adults. I walk out each time having learned something new. It’s so refreshing!”
When it comes to Courageously Living the Gospel, Johnson said the teens get it in a way that many adults do not. She believes they do not need to be taught or inspired to live the Gospel so much as empowered.
“To me, Courageously Living the Gospel means stepping out of my comfort zone and taking risks to spread Jesus’ message of love and mercy to all people,” said Johnson. “We adults tend to worry too much about losing our material possessions or losing face or losing our friends and family. Jesus taught that we must be willing to put all those things at risk and put our faith in God first and foremost. That’s not easy to do because the older we get, the more settled and comfortable we become. These teens are just starting out. Their faith is fresh, strong and new and they are willing to be courageous. I don’t think we need to inspire them so much as to enable them to inspire us.”
The members of the Youth Group Core Team are: Paul Berry, William Terranova, Rosa Mendoza, Ramon Granados and Mario Panjoj. They were also recently joined by Sister Sabina Chimal who is filling the void left by Sister Norma and has been providing spiritual direction.