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Online groups lead to friendships and new-look faith-sharing events

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The LaPorte Catholic Church Youth Ministry had a “modern saint photo challenge.” Pictured is Mary Murphy, incoming Junior at Marquette High School, as St. Dymphna. (Photos provided)

 

BY LYNDA J. HEMMERLING

NWIC correspondent

 

      With online prayer groups, Masses and game nights, many parishes in the Diocese of Gary are finding innovative ways to keep their high school and young adult parishioners actively engaged during the summer, just not in person.

      Vicky Hathaway, ministry consultant for the Youth and Young Adult Ministry, said she is so impressed with teen and young adult ministry leaders who have stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic to share the faith with others.

      To begin, the diocese developed small group meetings for young people out of high school, 18 to 39. Hathaway said it was a “great way” to keep young adults connected and create new friendships.

      In order to keep the teenage group engaged while limiting screen exhaustion is key, according to Hathaway, so youth ministers are leading unique online experiences, such as scavenger hunts or game nights.

      “Some have engaged in picture challenges or encouraged teens to reflect by posting questions on Instagram,” Hathaway said. “They let young people and their families know that they are not alone – that Christ loves them, their parish loves them, and that they are loved by those who minister to them, too.”

      Victoria “Tori” Perez, youth director of LaPorte Catholic Church, which includes St. Peter, St. Joseph and Sacred Heart parishes, said she hit the ground running when it came to various online activities at the initiation of the government stay-at-home orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

      For the first month-and-a-half, Perez hosted ZOOM meetings, Netflix parties, game nights, Sunday night online sessions with a national youth ministry group called Project YM, and more. Then she recognized a “drastic drop” in participation.

      After talking with a small group of youths, Perez determined the problem was screen exhaustion. Now, instead of inundating them with activities, she offers little ventures done at home with less actual screen time. She also reaches out regularly to let them know how important they are and that their feelings are valid. “They are constantly on my mind and I am praying for them,” Perez said.

      The at-home scavenger hunt – with students scrounging the house for prayer cards, Rosaries and crucifixes – was a big hit, she said. After tallying up points, winners received $5 gift cards and a “Tiny Saint” plastic charm.

      Just recently, Perez hosted a “picture challenge,” which was fun for all. “The teens picked a saint and tried to capture the aesthetic with the clothes they have. They really enjoyed it. That one was really fun for me – seeing them have fun using their creativity.”

      Due to various state and federal COVID-related regulations which can vary by county and the discretion of Church leaders, Perez said she is continually faced with the challenge of finding activities her teens will enjoy in a safe environment. “It is an ongoing challenge because there are so many moving pieces,” Perez said.

      Online conferences are also being utilized to bring faith experiences to young people. For example, Emily Sutton from St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Student Center in Valparaiso is guiding her young people through an online conference offered by Steubenville University, and three young people from the diocese are attending the Missionary Disciples Institute from Marian University, Indianapolis.

      “Instead of going to campus like they had planned, they will be participating in online gatherings, listening to speakers and participating in small group fellowship,” Hathaway explained.

      Active Catholic Teens, the youth ministry at St. Thomas More in Munster, has a very active social media account on Instagram, Hathaway noted. Father Declan McNicholas and other group leaders “have posted images and stories inviting their young people to go deeper with their faith,” she said.

      At Queen of All Saints in Michigan City, Jessica and Nick Rosier gathered young adults for online game nights and prayer opportunities.

      “Through the quarantine, we offered weekly Friday night meetings online. We prayed together, anything from the Stations (of the Cross) to novenas to the upcoming Gospel reading, and then played games like online Scattergories or trivia,” Jessica Rosier, campus experience coordinator, said. “We offered a prize each night – usually an Amazon gift card.

      “We have just started meeting again in person,” she said of backyard barbecues that allow participants to maintain social distance. “Through ‘Backyard BBQ’ and ‘Faith Sharing’ evenings at our home,” said Jessica Rosier, “we catch up on life, listen to a Father Mike Schmitz podcast and participate in a group.”

      The group of 10 to 12 young adults ranges in age from the late 20s to the late 30s and hail from throughout the diocese – Highland and Valparaiso to Michigan City and LaCrosse. “This is a change, since we would typically meet inside the Legacy Center at Queen of All Saints,” Rosier said. “Moving outside to our big backyard has helped people feel comfortable with distancing.”

      The group also has a camping trip to Shades State Park planned in August. “We will hike, tube down the river and have time for personal prayer and reflection,” Jessica Rosier said. A volunteer day at Indiana Dunes National Park is planned for September.

      Hathaway said, “I've been blown away by how young adults have also stepped up and started to form community with each other. The small groups that were formed were beautiful.”

      Melissa Lopez from Ss. Peter and Paul in Merrillville agreed her online small group was beneficial. The mother of a six-month-old, Lopez said she “would never have been part of a group that meets regularly like this” because of her family commitments.

      The women in her small group hail from Highland, Hobart and Michigan City. “We are still meeting and talking even with the end of the small groups,” Lopez said. “We have formed lasting friendships. I think we will always be in communication.”

      Hathaway said small groups will begin again later this year. “They were led by young adults themselves who discerned together how the group should be formed. They heard what each other needed and came together to support each other. I'm really thankful for those young people who said ‘yes’ to participating. We are going to form more small groups in the fall.”

        Offering Mass online is another way parishes continue to engage young people. “Many young people said that they were happy to see their home parish and hear their priest or deacon during this time of separation from physically attending Mass,” Hathaway said

      “Some of the things that we learned during the time of COVID is that people crave community,” Hathaway said. “What I witnessed many of our youth ministers doing is going the extra mile to reach out and connect with their young people and their families. Youth ministers checked in with parents and listened to their experiences as well as being there to support the young people.”

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