By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published June 21, 2007
Those teens that didn’t get to Exhibit Hall A of the Georgia International Convention Center early enough to reserve front row seats in the teen track resorted to improvisation. They just sat on the concrete floor in front of the first row of chairs for the entire day.
“This was an excited crowd. There was no doubt about it,” said Barb Garvin, director of youth ministry for the archdiocese.
Garvin, who is also currently serving as the interim director of religious education for the archdiocese, estimated that as many as 2,500 teens participated in the teen track of the Eucharistic Congress June 9.
“It really seemed to fluctuate all day long,” she said.
The lineup for the teen track, which Garvin called “the best we’ve ever had,” included comedian and storyteller Doug Brummel and well-known Catholic musicians Matt Maher and Tony Melendez. Paul George, director of ADORE, a nonprofit ministry that serves the Diocese of Houma/Thibodaux, La., and former Southern regional director for Life Teen, served as the emcee for the track.
Maher, one of the most popular Catholic artists in the country, kept the teens on their feet with his uplifting songs or led them to raise their hands in praise with his slower tempo worship songs throughout the day.
Brummel kept their attention for 90 minutes with his seven eye-catching costume and character changes, which included a nun, an older lady named “Estelle,” a college student named “Andrew,” and a young boy named “Timmy.” Each character had a spiritual and catechetical lesson to teach.
His character, “Hoover,” a janitor for the local Catholic church, spoke of the time when a curious community member stopped into the church to ask him about the Catholic faith. Hoover told him the story of Jesus and told him that John, the teenager, was the one who stood by Jesus until he died.
“Only the teenager had the courage to stand by Jesus until the hour of his death,” he said. “I told him that sometimes I think we sell our teenagers a little short.”
“Joe,” Brummel’s senior citizen character, told of his wife whom he’d lost to cancer.
“Don’t ever be afraid to tell the people that you love that you love them because you never know,” he told the teens.
After a lunch break, during which many teens spent the time visiting the vendors and going to confession, Catholic musician Tony Melendez took the stage.
Melendez was born without arms after his mother was prescribed thalidomide, a drug used to help calm morning sickness, during her pregnancy.
Though fitted with artificial limbs, he only wore them until age 10 because he found he was much more proficient using his feet instead. In high school he began playing the guitar and writing his own songs, and it was during this time that he became deeply involved with his Catholic faith.
Melendez considered becoming a priest but couldn’t because priests are required to have an index finger and thumb for the celebration of the Eucharist. The news disappointed him, but he persevered in his church activities, using his talents as a guitarist and composer for Masses and church-related events.
Many around the world witnessed a life-changing event when Melendez performed for Pope John Paul II during the pope’s visit to Los Angeles in 1987. So moved by Melendez’s performance, the pope jumped off his platform to give Melendez a kiss on the cheek.
When introducing the musician, Paul George said of Melendez, “This guy is incredible. You could put him and Matt (Maher) up there together and if you closed your eyes you couldn’t tell the difference. That’s how amazing he is,” George said. “It is definitely my honor to introduce him.”
Melendez began his performance with a rousing rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” as the teens clapped along enthusiastically. Soon, others came in from outside Exhibit Hall A, and there was not an empty chair to be seen.
Though Melendez mostly played and sang, he inspired the teens with his courage.
“I never want to hear you say ‘I can’t do it,’” he told them. “Because if a guy with no arms can do it, you can do even greater things.”
José Melendez, Tony’s brother, then gave a moving testimony of his brother’s zeal for life.
“Together we have traveled to 36 countries. We have been in small, little churches and in huge arenas,” he said.
When Tony first began attending school, he was in a school for those with disabilities, where he learned special skills. But Tony learned quickly and wanted to attend school with his brother.
“I remember the first day we walked to the bus stop together. There was this cold, quiet hush. We got onto the bus, and all the kids had moved onto the left side of the bus,” José said. “I heard the whispers and the comments, and I sunk down in my seat. I was embarrassed by my little brother. I felt ashamed of him.”
He went home from school and spoke to his mother.
“I just want a normal brother. I just want a brother that I can throw a Frisbee with. Why can’t I have that? I remember I looked over and Tony was standing there in the door, and he just looked at me and walked away.”
But that day changed everything for José and his brother.
Tony led him outside and had José throw a Frisbee to him. He caught the disc between his chin and shoulder.
“I told him it was OK that I knew he couldn’t throw it back. But he picked up that Frisbee with his toes, and he flung it at me. It sailed through the air perfectly, and it hit me right in the bridge of my nose,” he said as the crowd laughed. “I was knocked on my rear end. When I looked up, I saw my brother’s hands for the first time. They weren’t there and they didn’t grow, but I saw them for the first time with my heart. I realized something about disabilities. It’s people like you and me who are disabled. People who say ‘I can’t. I won’t. I don’t believe.’ Impossible things are possible. Miracles happen. But we have to believe them.”
Tony, José said, though he is without arms, is “more whole than most of us because he is a beacon of how the Holy Spirit can work in each of us.”
“You young people can lift each other up, or you can tear each other down. You can make the changes we need in this world. Don’t be afraid to make them,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to listen to the Holy Spirit.”
Many teens were touched by Melendez and his brother.
Sam Hibbert, a parishioner at St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro, who will attend Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville next year, said Melendez reminded him that he can “do anything.”
“I make things hard for myself,” he said. “But he reminded me that if I can conceive it and I can believe it, I can achieve it.”
“Today’s just been so great. I was here with an amazing group of friends, and I’ve felt the energy of the Holy Spirit,” Hibbert continued. “It’s been a spiritual refill for me. I just loved it.”
Breona Castillo, an upcoming junior from Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur who attends Marist School in Atlanta, was attending her fourth Eucharistic Congress.
“It’s such a nice atmosphere,” she said. “I just enjoy being around people like me who believe what I do.”
She also believes the archdiocese is empowering teenagers by giving them their own track.
“It makes me feel like they are reaching out to me, like they want to know about me and what I care about,” she said.
Garvin said that this year, they had speakers who appealed to the diverse crowd of teens.
“We had African-American teens, Hispanic teens, Vietnamese teens. We had a very diverse crowd and very diverse speakers,” she said. “But I think the appeal was that each of these speakers spoke their language. These kids were excited to be there, and that’s what this is all about.”