By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published July 3, 2008
On the weekend that the much-anticipated TV movie “Camp Rock” debuted, teens from across North Georgia attending the Teen Track at the Eucharistic Congress danced and sang at their own Camp Rock, only Catholic-style.
“It’s like a rock concert, but they’re doing it for what they believe in. You can’t ask for anything more,” said Barb Garvin, director of youth ministry for the Atlanta Archdiocese. The track included a range of talented Catholic musicians and personalities—Curtis Stephan and band, a music group from Texas, the musical comedy duo called “Over the Top Ministries” from Maryland, and Matthew Kelly, a noted speaker and author whose message has reached over 2 million people in 50 countries.
Mike Ragan, a local personality active in youth ministry and Catholic education, set a light-hearted, spirited and spiritual tone as the day’s emcee.
“Let’s make our songs a prayer to God,” Ragan told the youth, most of whom would rush to the front of the stage to sing and dance any time music played.
Early into the track after the band opened with a set, Kelly addressed the attentive audience that filled all of the 1,500 chairs and spilled over onto the floor.
It’s important to have a plan in life that includes time spent connecting with God, Kelly said. He challenged the youth to put aside 10 minutes a day in “the classroom of silence” asking God what they should do.
“All the answers are in the tabernacle,” he explained.
He cautioned the youth about the “modern lie of success,” which is believing that possessions bring contentment.
“Happiness doesn’t come from things. It comes from right living.”
The goal, he added, is to become “the best version of yourself” and that comes through good habits and always trying to do “the next right thing.”
“Our lives change when our habits change.”
Good habits take discipline, he said. Planning is also important. “People who fail to plan, plan to fail,” he repeatedly reminded them.
Courage also comes into play along with knowing what in one’s life “will turn on you and strike you down.”
“As you make your journey, you will encounter rattlesnakes—you will encounter people and situations that will keep you from becoming the best version of yourself. Know the things that are good for you—exercise, eating the right foods, silence, reading great books—you know these things.”
Above all, he encouraged them to nurture their relationship with God. “If you do nothing in life, find that place within. Most people never find it; find that place to connect with yourself, to connect with God.”
Emmanuel Melendez, from Holy Family parish in Marietta, enjoyed Kelly’s presentation and remembered what was said about spending 10 minutes a day with God. He enjoyed the track, too. “It’s really good for the spirit.”
Erin Landers, 16, and John Greer, 14, were securing a spot in front of the stage for the next set of songs. They came with their youth group from St. Pius X Church in Conyers. Greer enjoyed the praise and worship music, saying it united those present. Landers added, “It’s really cool to be with a group of people your age who love God as much as you.”
Stephan, a rising star in the Catholic Christian music world who hails from Coppell, Texas, appreciates the city’s hospitality. “Atlanta is one of my homes away from home,” he said in an interview during the lunch break.
He “prays a lot” before events such as the Congress. “It’s more important to me that (the youth) see how much I like them than for them to like me.”
A youth minister himself, he understands the need to connect with the youth. “They are our present and future.”
He recalled his days growing up when youth ministry wasn’t as widespread. “There were only one or two other kids (involved from his parish). We were an anomaly. There’s such great youth ministry now. … You can never invest too much in the youth.”
He added, “There’s nothing more beautiful than a teen experiencing Christ for the first time, to have that light of Christ.”
In the afternoon, the audience was treated to some “faith, fellowship and funk” through the talented duo, “Over the Top Ministries,” comprised of Anne Marie Cribbin and Justin Russell, both of whom are involved in youth ministry in Maryland.
“Put on your Jesus!” they encouraged the crowd.
With a few word changes, the pair put a Catholic twist on some oldies but goodies: “It’s never to late to apologize … Eucharist from Paradise … Buying a stairway to heaven.”
Their program included a few stories and also a reflection on the Living Bread. “The coolest thing about God is that he gives us a choice to love him,” Russell said.
This translates into the listeners’ everyday lives, as well.
“The point is that we have a choice between being moldy bread or living bread,” Russell continued. “Jesus is here saying that the next time you go to send a text message, write in Facebook, or send an IM, think twice about cutting someone else down, making someone less than the body of Christ.”
The two praised the bountiful expression of Catholicity of the Congress with its many bishops and priests and the faithful walking the halls. “You’re invited to bump into Jesus wherever you go.”
They also applauded the enthusiasm of the teen crowd. “We just want to tell you that your spirit and enthusiasm and willingness to jump in and be crazy is awesome, so we wanted to say thank you for that.”
Teen track volunteer Bobbie Robson agreed.
“This is great. It’s just so vital to get our youth passionate about the Catholic faith.”
He stressed the importance of the youth developing a personal relationship with Christ. “Our job is to model Christ. Our job is to be witnesses to non-believers. That’s our challenge.”
He stressed the importance of teaching the youth at an early age. “We have to try our best to guide them.”
He commended programs like LifeTeen and the Search Retreat for their effectiveness. His daughter, Jessica Robson, recently began working with the archdiocese in coordinating Search retreats. At one point in the afternoon she took the stage and invited the youth to attend. She enjoyed the track.
“I’m surprised. I didn’t think there’d be as many teens. They’re really excited. … To think that they’d be here on a weekend is really cool.”
In an interview later, Ragan explained the parameters of his purpose as emcee. “There are a few things I know I have to do, but I mostly let the spirit move us. The crowd was so energetic. They were ready to go. They wanted to sing and dance.”
While there is a lot of fun involved, “in working with the kids, high school and middle school, I ask them to see into the message (of a song) and invite them to go deeper.”
“Some kids come from parishes where they have a big youth group. Other parishes do not, but I see kids open to experiencing their faith in a demonstrative way.”
He expressed his desire that their enthusiasm not end with the event. He told the crowd, “I hope you take the Eucharistic Congress back to your parishes because they need you.”
Stephan and his band ended by playing, among other songs, “Alabaré,” a favorite of the Spanish-speaking contingency present, and the familiar “Winds of Change,” the theme song Stephan wrote for the 2005 National Catholic Youth Conference held in Atlanta.
Giggly and smiling, friends were catching their breath following the last song. They were excited that Stephan, who resides in a part of the country with a large Hispanic population, had played “Alabaré,” a Spanish-language song familiar to them but not as familiar to others. Some had hopped on stage.
“Alabaré was awesome,” said Alany Gutierrez, 16. She liked the atmosphere of the track. “The kids are really nice, and it’s easy to profess your faith.”
Arturo Gutierrez, 13, said he hopes to come back next year. “I love the music and the people jumping around. It’s kind of like a circus.”
Garvin was pleased with the turnout and the participation of the youth, particularly their acceptance and inclusion of everyone. She noted the spiritual growth of the youth and the international flavor of the crowd. At one point, enthusiastic youth joined in a train started by Vietnamese teens that were dancing and parading through the aisles.
“What a beautiful gift,” she said. “That’s what they bring to the church.”