Friday, January 21, 2011

Lessons in Not Being Needed Pt - 2

“I hope to have communion with the people, that is the most important thing.” - John Paul II
In my last post I talked about the importance of empowerment over hand outs. In this post I would like to move on to the second lesson the Lord taught me while in the Philippines: relationships are more important than the work we do. 

As I said before, in preparation for this trip I was looking forward to the work we would be doing. However, I soon came to realize that the Filipinos did not share the same anticipation. They were more interested in meeting us and showing us their world than what we could physically do for them. 

We arrived in Infanta, Quezon after a few days in Manila. While in Manila, I felt like a tourist - everything was new and different, we were meeting nuns and seeing sights. However, now we were in Infanta, where the real work would begin. 

The day after we arrived in Infanta we toured around the area to see the damage that had been done by the floods and were told the story of how the people dealt with it (which I discussed in my last post). We also visited John Paul II Village, which had been build for those who had lost everything. In the village we met the youth group and participated in a Christmas party that was held inside the church. It was a great time to encounter the people, laugh and play with them. The thing that amazed me most during that visit was how similar we all are. The middle school and high school youth we met behaved the exact same way american middle school and high school youth would act when meeting people they didn’t know. You have the shy ones who are very uncomfortable speaking in front of everyone, the vocal ones who relish an opportunity to speak in front of a crowd, and the boys who try to act all cool and collected. At the Christmas party we even played some of the same icebreakers we would play at youth group! 

The second day we visited the Carmelite Convent to share with them who we are, celebrate the Mass, and do work for them. When we got there, however, they told us frankly that they didn’t know what work we could do but brushed it off as unimportant and invited us to eat lunch with them. The sisters eventually said it would be helpful if we cleaned their chapel where the locals come for Sunday Mass. As we were preparing to get to work one of the sisters invited us to go on a hike to a prayer hut in the woods behind the convent. Again, work was not the main concern. 

After the hike it felt good to finally be doing work. There was still a struggle within me though. I kept thinking to myself, “Here we came all the way from the U.S.A. And we are mopping the floor of an open air chapel that will just get dirty again.” It was very humbling work and that is the point. The Lord used this first experience to try to tell me that the purpose of our trip was not about the work but about our presence. 
The next day we went back to John Paul II village to see their greenhouses and help plant some vegetables. At this point in the trip, I started to get the feeling that many of the places we went the people were just trying to find something for us to do. They didn’t seem to need us. However, the planting project allowed us to have one of my favorite experiences of the trip. After planting for an hour or two we were told to stop and eat lunch (the Filipinos love their meals, and so did I). After lunch we were invited to one of the houses for karaoke! Before we knew it the room was packed with kids; adults looking in from the door and windows. It was probably the closest we got to the villagers we were meeting. We sang songs from “Hero” by Mariah Carey to “Baby” by Justin Bieber and the 10 year old girls tried to teach us how to dance. This was one of my favorite eexperiences of the trip because it was one of the first time that we were able to “let loose” and have fellowship with the people. It is amazing to see how quickly and easily cultural barriers crumble when doing karaoke! Unfortunately, the time for us to leave came too quickly and we said goodbye to all the beautiful and amazing people of the John Paul II village. 

On the fourth day we finally went to the school we had come to help with. At the construction site we were shown a pile of dirt that needed to be shoveled into bags that would contribute to making mortar. We set to work and quickly interrupted after about an hour of work by hundreds of school children. Some of us went to play with the students and others continued to fill bags - I was determined to do work. I soon came to realize the lesson the Lord had been trying to teach me since the first day in Infanta. “They don’t need your work. They need your presence and love.” So I, too, put down my shovel and started to invest in the students. 

With our ‘work’ done I started to see the beauty in what the Lord had taught me. The work is never as important as the people. I think this can be a very good lesson for many youth ministries. A lot of times we get caught up in our programs and we forget about our youth. The best program is worthless if it does not connect the youth to the person of Jesus Christ. That is primarily done through relationships. This is the way Jesus did it, it’s the way the apostles did it, it’s the way we should do it. If we are too busy to notice the worth of each of our youth then what is the point of the program? I read a youth ministry book recently that stated: Our messages are not isolated to a time slot in the schedule where we get up in front of the group and speak. Every single thing we do or don’t do in our ministry conveys a message.  My personal struggle in this area is names. I could give the best talk of my life but if a 8th graders comes up to me to tell me how much it impacted them and I don’t know their name they are going to walk away deflated; thinking that I don’t care about them enough to know their name. This is not true, I do care deeply about each of our kids and I want them to grow in their faith, but my actions are not conveying that message. If we are too busy running around, concerned with the program then a youth might get the message that God is to busy running the world to be concerned with them individually. I would hate for this to happen in my ministry. 

In writing this I am convicting myself. I too often get caught up in making sure everything is running smoothly. I find myself behind the sound board rather than beside the youth. Let us strive for relationship so we can say to the youth as St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1Corinthians 11:1). They cannot follow us if we are not present to them. For the most part, the lasting impact our talks and programs have on the youth corresponds to the degree to which we have invested in our relationship with them. 

I am not condoning doing away with formal programs by any means. However, I believe many of us can benefit from a shift of focus (or simply a reminder of where our priority should lie.) Our programs need to be planned in such a way that they foster relationships. I for one need to work on planning ahead so that on the night of youth group I am not still trying to iron out the details but instead have given my volunteers and mentors their tasks ahead of time so I can be free to just be with the youth, and maybe even learns some names.

When asked recently at a dinner, “What did you learn on your mission trip?” I responded, “That we weren’t needed.” It is true, our physical ability and work was not needed. God chose to use us for was our ability to be with. To be with the people of Infanta; allowing them to open our eyes and hearts and hopefully in some way touch their lives too. The same is true for ministry. God does not want us in ministry for what we can do but for who we can be. 

Let us thank God that we are not needed and it is only His presence in us that is able to do any good! And let us implore the intercession of Our Lady that she may bring us closer to her son!

More to come...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lessons On Not Being Needed - Pt.1

“I hope to have communion with the people, that is the most important thing.” - John Paul II
(So this is my first official post and I am sure it needs a lot of work. I pray that you will be able take something away from my humble insights and discussions. This is the first part of a series on the mission trip I led to the Philippines this past week. Enjoy.)
I just returned from a mission trip to the Philippines. We were there December 30th through January 9th. It was an amazing trip, but nothing like I expected. The Lord took this trip as an opportunity to challenge my leadership and trust, open my eyes, and grow my heart. 
I learned many lessons on this trip but I would like share with you three that I think translate to youth ministry and life in general: (1) Empowerment is better than hand outs; (2) It’s not about the work you do but the time and presence you give; (3)Always be open to God changing your plans.
During the planning of this trip and as we arrived in Manila I was looking forward to working. I was looking forward to the familiar feeling of sweating and straining to accomplish a task for the betterment of others. On this trip the task was to help in whatever way we could with the construction of a school that had been demolished 30 years ago by a typhoon. Obviously we were not going to build the school ourselves but it would be great to help in whatever way they needed. After spending two nights in Manila we finally made our way to Infanta, Quezon, where the school is located.
Infanta is one of the poorer areas of the Philippines and they have suffered tremendously. Six years ago they suffered from numerous typhoons back-to-back. Because of illegal logging the typhoons washed all the fallen trees into the river which damned up at a bridge. The growing amount of water and trees, coupled with a massive mudslide, collapsed one side of the bridge sending a wall of mud and trees towards the town of Infanta.
The town was buried in mud and 2,000 people perished. The magnitude of the this disaster reminded me a lot of Hurricane Katrina. Thanks to the help of the local Catholic Church and its leaders, Bishop Tirona and Deacon Mario, the town has dug themselves out of the mud and organized the relief effort. (Allow me a moment to speak about the two great men I just mentioned. Bishop Tirona is one of the holiest and joyful men I have ever met. He is one of those people I am happy just to be in the presence of. He has such a heart for the poor that saturates everything he does. Deacon Mario was working at the diocese prior to the floods. After the flood he was given the position of accountant and head of the social action center after the death of Fr. Cha. Fr. Cha held those positions prior to the flood but was killed after saving 200 villagers. Deacon Mario has certainly stepped up to the added responsibilities. He has devoted his life to the poor and working class. He has been, and still is the head man on many projects throughout the Infanta area that are changing lives. Everywhere we went, whether it was a tribal village in the heart of the jungle, the projects outside the city, or at Sunday Mass, everyone knew who he was and loved him.) The Catholic Church is rebuilding this town. It is not some government organization or foreign entity that is coming to the rescue but the Catholic Church by taking the much needed aid from outside and empowering the people to put it to effective and sustainable use. 
This system works. Unlike many other relief efforts where thousands of supplies are shipped in and then distributed to whoever is there, the supplies were organized and distributed according to need. The community had already been organized into small, local communities and each community had a spokesperson who knew the needs of their community and so were able to get help to the most in need without excessive waste or abuse of the system. 
        In the John Paul II village which was built for people who lost everything in the flood, they have their own greenhouses where villagers grow vegetables to be sold in the market for income. Nearby, there is a group of women who take fallen banana trees and make unique and beautiful paper products that are sold as far away as the Netherlands. And these are only a few of the many great things going on.
This was the first lesson I learned: Empowerment is better than hand outs. The old saying is well known, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Give a man a fishing pole and teach him to fish and he can eat for the rest of his life.” Lasting change can only come through empowerment, not handouts. Instead of relying on others to donate what they need, the people of Infanta are taking it upon themselves to improve their community.
This is a poignant lesson for youth ministry, especially Catholic youth ministry. Too often I think we get caught up in the religious education model of teaching the faith. We drill the correct answers into the youth until they can regurgitate the same answers back. Instead, we should be empowering the youth to take responsibility for their faith. We need to challenge them to think and feel instead of simply letting them coast through religious ed and youth group. I think one of the best ways to do this in a youth ministry setting (we are currently working with this model in our ministry at St. Thomas More) is through mentoring. In our program we have high school students who volunteer to be small group leaders and help in various aspects of the ministry. As the youth take more ownership of the youth nights they become more invested in the Church as well. It also provides great opportunities for us youth ministers to be more present to each student. We are currently looking at ways to empower more of our middle schoolers to help with different aspects of our nights. 
As a youth minister the idea of giving responsibility to the youth can be scary. What if they mess up? Can they do as good a job as an adult? Don’t worry, they will mess up and an adult probably could do a better job. But the rewards wouldn’t be as great. Challenges make us grow and through messing up we learn to do better. Ultimately, it is not about how good, shiny and seamless our programs are. Youth ministry is about relationship and how much the youth are changed  through encounters with Christ(more on this in my next post). 
These days middle school youth are seen as the toughest age to work with. I think people don’t give them enough credit and don't expect a lot out of adolescents. However, I have found these kids are able to step up to whatever challenge we give them, if only we did. Just imagine if a 7th grader saw the Church as the only place where people took him seriously and trusted him. Or a high schooler, after spending year in religious ed is finally given an opportunity to formulate their own thoughts on the faith through preparing a testimony or talk.
Under this model the youth are not simply bystanders who are talked at each week by the adults (they get enough of that at school). Instead they become active participants in the ministry. This provides opportunity for them to become personally invested in the ministry, the Church, and ultimately Christ through the witness of the mentors they are working with. I think this also is a good tangible lesson, whether they realize it consciously or not, that our faith is not passive but something that we invest ourselves in and contribute to. 
More to Come . . . 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

If This Were a Book

If I were writing a book then I suppose this post would be the Preface/Introduction. Its the part of the book that many people skip over to get to the 'real' book. Almost as if the preface is simply a formality. However, for those who do have the strong will to read the prefaces to books know that it serves as a foundation; to give a framework by which to view and judge the rest of the written word. This is what I aim to do in this first post that isn't really a post but an introduction/preface. I am officially starting this blog on January 1st. The Feast of Mary Mother of God because I feel that any endeavor will be the better when begun under her intercession (please don't that I am all holy and what not for thinking that because I am by no means). When it comes to my devotion to Our Lady I am simply an infant.)

A little bit about the blog.
The Beginning - Everybody seems to be getting into the whole blogging thing. I did not want to be just another person adding to the noise of everyone’s collective musings. One day I was talking to a friend who is currently a Catechetics major at Franciscan University. We were discussing youth ministry when another friend from Franciscan emailed me asking for advice on one of his assignments. That is when it occurred to me that there may be a few people who would get something out of reading about my experiences as I begin my life in ministry. I think it would be especially helpful for me to break down our youth nights according to the ecclesial method. This method, which consists of (1)Preparation, (2) Proclamation, (3) Explanation, (4)Application, and (5) Celebration ; was a struggle for me and my fellow catechetics majors and seems to continue to give current students trouble. I hope I will be able to provide practical examples of each of the stages. 

The title - “Past the Start.” This phrase comes from a poem by Bradley Hathaway called “Manly Man.” The whole line goes:
Like David I want to be a man after God’s heart,
I’m not there yet but I’m past the start.
The video of this poem is imbedded below:
This blog is not about how I have achieved the perfection of youth ministry or Christian living for that matter. I am simply one of God’s sons. This truth fills me with so much hope so much disgust. How could God choose to make me his son while I turn away from Him daily? Yet He still pursues my heart. This will never cease to blow my mind and call me on to pursue Him. 
I plan on updating this blog once a week.

The Content - In addition to the ecclesial method breakdown of the youth nights. I will also look at what worked and what didn’t work during each night. I will also share my thoughts on different topics ranging from relevant youth ministry issues, social issues, and what the Lord is teaching me in my spiritual life with the hope that it may help and inspire you as well.

You - Finally, I would hate for this to just be another blog adding to the noise of pointless thinking out loud. To keep from doing this I need you. I want this to be a place of conversation, where we can come together to talk youth ministry and come away enriched from it. Comment on the posts(even if, especially if, you disagree with something I say), email me if there is something specific you would like me to address. Most importantly, pray for me and all those who will be reading this blog. We are all striving to do God’s will and we cannot do it alone. We need to help each other, encourage one another, and pray for each other.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I am truly honored by your presence and you can always be assured of my prayers for you.