By PAYTON GRIFFIN, Special to the Bulletin | Published June 23, 2017
COLLEGE PARK—The middle school track at the Eucharistic Congress made its debut June 17 with an immense amount of energy and an unprecedented level of interaction for teens.
Whether it was the time of Eucharistic adoration or the question-and-answer session with Bishop-designate Bernard E. “Ned” Shlesinger III, the praise concert or conversations with a renowned youth minister, the track was a memorable experience for middle-schoolers from parishes across the archdiocese.
“God is always with us, no matter what trouble we’re in,” said Rory Donovan, a middle school student from St. Vincent de Paul Church in Dallas.
Rory, who was not shy when asked to join hip-hop artist Joe Melendrez on stage, would “most definitely” come again to an archdiocesan middle school event.
This was music to the ears of Katherine Angulo, associate director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Her ministry, part of the Office of Formation and Discipleship, organized the outreach.
“We want the group to experience that a Catholic environment is a safe environment. You can be happy, joyful and be Catholic,” said Angulo.
Three hundred middle school students represented more than 20 parishes, including Prince of Peace Church, Flowery Branch; St. Oliver Plunkett Church, Snellville; St. Anna Church, Monroe; Mary Mother of God Church, Jackson; St. Andrew Kim Church, Duluth; St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell; Our Lady of the Americas Mission, Lilburn; Transfiguration Church, Marietta; Korean Martyrs Church, Doraville; St. Jude the Apostle Church, Atlanta; Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Atlanta; St. John Vianney Church, Lithia Springs; St. Vincent de Paul Church, Dallas; St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna; Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur; St. Paul of the Cross Church, Atlanta; St. Theresa Church, Douglasville; Sacred Heart Church, Milledgeville; St. Luke the Evangelist Church, Dahlonega; and St. Michael the Archangel Church, Woodstock.
The morning began with introductions from emcees Steve Guris, youth minister at Corpus Christi Church, Stone Mountain, and Bridget Beaupre, youth minister at St. Matthew Church, Winder.
Spending time with the new bishop
Midway through the event, Bishop-designate Shlesinger brought the Blessed Sacrament for adoration. He also offered time for a question-and-answer session. After fielding a myriad of questions from the youth, he blessed the group during Benediction.
The first speaker for the program was Doug Tooke of Monarch Catholic Ministries, based in Montana. A passionate and veteran youth minister, Tooke stressed the importance of being in touch with Scripture and also looking to historical religious figures for inspiration. He shared stories of St. Patrick, St. Joan of Arc, and David from the Old Testament—all youthful figures. Tooke hoped to inspire teens to also work for the greater glory of God.
Tooke played games throughout the day, instructing participants to act out what they heard in the stories. This helped youth have fun while contemplating each story’s significance.
What did it require for David to use his heavy slingshot to take down the mighty Goliath? How important was having trust in God? Tooke helped the teens answer questions such as these, for each historical story.
In a lunchtime interview with the Georgia Bulletin, Tooke discussed the wisdom gained from 20 years of youth ministry. “Conversion flows from experience,” he said. Tooke added that conversion of the heart is the mission and what he aims to facilitate.
He advised being involved with one’s faith, a suggestion that served as segue to the second speaker, Joe Melendrez, a Christian hip-hop artist. Melendrez is based in Los Angeles and is originally from San Antonio, Texas.
Wearing his God Swagg brand apparel, Melendrez brought energy and excitement to the track as he shared concise, yet thorough, explanations of what it means to place “faith over fear.”
Melendrez invited teens to participate in the concert as flashing lights filled the room. Many teens enjoyed being called on stage as part of the performance.
This solidified that the track was interactive, said Craig Park, a parishioner of Korean Martyrs Church.
Faith before fears
Melendrez not only proclaimed the word of God through music but also spoke about how to put faith before any fears that one may have.
He used a video to share his path to a strong faith, which began for him at age 15. This stood as an example of how the teens, too, could start proclaiming the word of God at a young age.
He created a makeshift mosh pit, dubbed “The God Pit,” before performing original songs, beginning with “Forever Alive.” The middle-schoolers responded enthusiastically.
Melendrez’s goal was to help young people profess their faith and love for God with excitement and to remember that they should do so every day.
During a quiet period, Melendrez discussed conquering fear by dividing it into four stages. His first stage was to define fear as a distressing emotion aroused by an impressing danger. Specifically, fear can change behavior.
Teens should live their lives open to dealing with fears, for God has placed the fear in front of them to face it, he encouraged.
The next step is to overcome fear by trusting in God, praying and creating a new mindset. He explained that one may pray to God for a new mindset. Also, God is with us everywhere we go and will never leave as Isaiah 41:10 attests, said the artist.
The third stage is embracing faith, and finally, understanding that faith over fear is equivalent to a trust in God. Melendrez hoped teens would overcome anxieties by placing trust in God and when doing so, not to worry excessively.
The event earned high marks from participants.
Ashley Chung of St. Andrew Kim Church recalled the bravery of young St. Joan. Her teacher, Joanna Chung, said she enjoyed the program.
The event was “lit,” said Hugo and his friends from Our Lady of the Americas Mission.
Youth minister Susan Frederick, of St. Vincent de Paul Church, believes faith over fear was a perfect message.
“The track is my way to get rejuvenated,” said Frederick, adding she prefers attending the youth tracks. “They speak more to my heart.”
Suzanne Haugh contributed to this story. Payton Griffin is an intern from Marist School, Atlanta.