TACOMA – On a cold Saturday morning in March, Juliana Johns joined other Catholic teens on a downtown Tacoma street corner, passing out food to hungry men and women.
The teens, in the middle of a 24-hour Lenten food fast retreat, were hungry themselves. The night before, fueled by only juice and water, they made the sandwiches that they were now handing out, along with fruit, cookies, coffee and juice.
Helping that morning at Operation Keep ’Em Warm and Fed (a community program supported by two Tacoma parishes) was eye-opening, said Johns, a member of Tacoma’s Visitation Parish. “My family has always been involved with helping the poor, so I knew what to expect, but I’ve never done it hungry,” the high school senior said. “This time I was coming at it from a different angle.”
Johns and nearly 50 other teens from parishes around Pierce County had the opportunity to directly serve the poor and grow in their faith at the March 3-4 retreat. Held at St. Leo the Great Church, the retreat was one of three events planned this year by the Pierce County Catholic Youth Ministry Association.
Making group connections
Elijah Whitesell and Noah Copeland of Tacoma’s Visitation Parish scrape and clean frames from last fall’s honey harvest at the L’Honey program in Tacoma. Their service was part of a recent Pierce Deanery youth retreat. Photo: Carmen Bryant
The coalition of parishes in the Pierce Deanery allows parishes with small or nonexistent youth programs to more fully serve their youth, according to Monica Rodrigues, pastoral assistant for faith formation at St. Andrew Parish in Sumner and Sts. Cosmas and Damian Mission in Orting.
It makes financial sense. All parishes are assessed for a contribution to the annual budget, so teens from all parishes have access to events at little or no cost to them, according to Carmen Bryant, coordinator of the coalition. But there are other benefits.
“Having different churches together, we can see the gifts and talents that each of us bring and pool them together,” Rodrigues said. And the youth get acquainted with other adults who can “inspire them and help them in their walk.”
Through the deanery events, Johns has become connected with more Catholic kids. “Your parish youth group is like your family; the deanery group is like your friends,” she said. “You’re really unified at the local level, then you meet new people and see things from their point of view.”
Parishes in the coalition are represented on the planning team by one adult and one or two students. The student leaders recently traveled to parishes in the deanery to share the transforming experiences they’ve had through coalition events.
“I would love for that joy to be spread throughout the county and then throughout the whole archdiocese,” said student leader Marie Rodrigues, a senior from Sts. Cosmas and Damian (and Monica Rodrigues’ daughter).
A protective coat of paint on honey bee hive boxes is applied by Grace Dorn of St. Leo the Great Parish in Tacoma and Ryan Metz of All Saints Parish in Puyallup. The teens were working at the L’Honey program in Tacoma as part of a Pierce Deanery youth retreat. Photo: Carmen Bryant
Sense of solidarity
During their 24-hour fast from food, the teens prayed the Stations of the Cross, with a focus on hunger and poverty, and listened to speakers from Bread for the World, a Christian organization dedicated to ending hunger.
The teens also volunteered at several Tacoma-based organizations that help the needy — serving meals at Nativity House, prepping soil at L’Arche Tahoma Hope farm and sorting clothes at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. Later, the youth wrote to state legislators, bringing attention to bills that would help the poor and hungry. After the sacrament of reconciliation, the group broke their fast with the Eucharist.
Going without food for a day heightened her sense of solidarity with those in need, Marie Rodrigues said. “I’m always hungry, but never have to make the choice to skip a meal or two or three,” she said. “Imagine doing that on a weekly, monthly or daily basis, when it’s the only choice they have.”
That sort of realization is what the Pierce Deanery youth leaders aim for as they expose their kids to social justice, the sacraments, vocation and service. “We give ’em a little seed, give ’em a little fertilizer, and see what grows,” Bryant said. “Someday they will be running the world, but now they’re still doing great things.”