ORLANDO | “There is no book that tells you how to proceed during a pandemic,” said Carlos Bernard Jr., director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Orlando. Motivated by Pope Francis’ words to the young people at World Youth Day 2019, “We need to stop saying, ‘You are the Church of the future.’ We need to start saying, ‘We are the Church of now.’” Bernard helped his parish youth ministry leaders plow through quarantines, social distancing requirements, pursuing and most often succeeding in keeping youth connected to their faith.
As the COVID-19 pandemic struck in February and parishes went into lockdown mode in March, the “face” of ministry changed—even came to a halt for some time. Parish staff took on many tasks, often with reduced hours. Bernard says it simply: “We were not TV evangelists. We were not IT people. Overnight we became them.” The evolution of a prolonged pandemic has demanded “out of the box” thinking.
Joanna Ojeda is youth director for St. Stephen Parish in Winter Springs. “Not really doing anything didn’t really sit well with me, so I got permission to begin doing things online,” she said. She began discipleship groups with the middle and high school groups. Fridays were game night. Over the summer, she joined Jennifer Chellberg, Nativity Parish youth director in Longwood, and her teens in bi-weekly art journaling. The night begins with Lectio Divina, journaling time with music, followed by art reflecting the Scripture verse. Occasionally other youth groups join in for events. “Our kids enjoyed experiencing the larger Church on a small scale,” Chellberg said.
She noted the pandemic brought challenges and blessings. Now that parents don’t have to drive students to activities, Nativity has twice as many middle-schoolers participating virtually. She plans to keep the art journaling going with Ojeda after the pandemic.
Seventeen-year-old Hengie is part of the Nativity youth group and a regular at art journaling. “It’s different than anything else I’ve been exposed to, but Nativity has tried to make it as normal and fun as possible… Participating in these events gives me an hour to put this COVID business out of mind, or anything political, or any drama I have at school. It’s an hour I can escape.” She said, “Having someone to talk with deepened my relationship with God.”
Ojeda noted overall, there are consistently more people attending youth activities. “The hardest part is finding ways of keeping it interesting online. The kids are sick of being on a screen. So finding fun games to keep them engaged is important.”
Diocesan and nationwide feedback brought Bernard to the same conclusion. He said, “Middle-schoolers are perfectly fine. They love to connect on the screen.” High-schoolers are “zoomed out” and telling youth leaders, “We need fellowship. We need connection. We need to be able to physically partake in ministry. This is where many youth ministry leaders are struggling now,” he noted.
As parishes re-opened and ministries resumed in July, Ojeda began Picnic in the Park with her high school students. The outdoors allowed for plenty of social distancing. Yet the youth ministry’s online presence is vital to ministry survival. Ojeda never pictured herself “into the whole social media game,” but she didn’t let that stop her.
Layne Behncke is youth leader for Resurrection Parish in Lakeland. Soon after COVID began, her parish received a new pastor, Father Tim LaBo, who also remained pastor of St. Joseph. That meant Behncke took on another youth program. She already had roughly 75 high school and 35 middle school students at Resurrection. “It’s been a crazy ride,” she said. But she appreciates Father LaBo’s support and enthusiasm. She stays connected via Remind 101, making sure via the app and Zoom meetings that students share prayer requests, experiences, and feelings. She posts weekly challenges like finding God in nature or acts of kindness. She believes, “making sure the youth know they’re cared about,” is a big part of her success.
Joe is 11 years old. He noted, “(Youth ministry) has taught me a lot of life lessons and brought me closer to God. I like how fun youth group is and how Layne makes the lessons enjoyable… it is hard to explain how close I have become to the Lord through the youth group.” His mother, Natalie, prayed Joe would overcome his reluctance to participate. Seeing his excitement after the first night, she went to bed with prayers of thanksgiving.
Daniel Boyd, director of Laity, Family and Life for the diocese acknowledges, “Youth ministry is especially essential now. Young people are facing so many challenges because of the pandemic. They are at a number of critical junctures in their life: deciding where to go to school, who they want to be, which friends surround themselves with.” He notes many have missed out on “pivotal” experiences. “Just like everyone, they need authentic Christian witnesses to mourn their losses, listen to their needs.”
St. Stephen’s youth leader, Ojeda, sees the challenges as a call similar to that of Advent. “In terms of the world with COVID, there’s a general sense of expectancy. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen next. Are we going to go into another lockdown? … Be ready. I think all of this is giving cause to realize it is a time of preparation – not just in our own lives preparing for who knows what, because we don’t know what’s next. But when it comes to eternal life, we do. So we can prepare for that.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, January 13, 2021