A handful of youth ministers in the diocese got a resounding groan from their teenagers at the prospect of meeting virtually.
“The kids are sick of that,” said Liz Tingquist, director of the diocesan Youth Ministry Office.
It’s why some youth ministry programs across the diocese are moving forward with creative in-person, distanced sessions for children to grow in faith but also staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tingquist said all the major diocesan youth events had to be canceled -- the state Catholic Youth Convention in April, Catholic Charities Summer Institute in July and Search retreats in March and July. The Weekend for Life retreat is also canceled for January. Because several retreats were overnight stays -- with teens sharing rooms to keep costs down -- and people traveling from all over the state, they were not safe during COVID-19.
“We were kind of suckerpunched by it,” Tingquist said of the virus. “I really spent the summer researching as far as live-streaming events and online programs that didn't cost anything to our youth ministers.”
Around 40 parishes have active youth ministry programs.
“Not one person has resigned. It’s a big deal because it’s hard enough doing it in the best of times … I’m extremely proud of them,” she said of youth ministers.
Diocesan CASA grant applications for youth ministries and faith formation programs were due Oct. 1, with a total of $100,000 available, which will be distributed in January. Tingquist said she hopes the money could help some with technological advancements.
In July, she surveyed youth ministers, asking what ministry looks like for them with COVID-19. Fifty-four percent planned to have in-person, small group youth ministry sessions this fall, and 29 percent would use virtual meetings. Eighteen percent mentioned using online resources for assistance.
The diocesan office plans to hold its confirmation retreat in February and the state convention in April, which typically draws 400 to 600 teenagers. National Catholic speaker Steve Angrisano has already been lined up for the likely one-day, outdoor event, but how many can attend and where it will be held is still unknown.
“There’s a lot of hurdles. I’m not saying we are not going to do something. We’re continuing to see what happens with COVID,” Tingquist said.
However, the diocese has kept its 23-member Youth Advisory Council strong with virtual meetings and a new social media initiative dubbed the YAC Instagram Takeover. When Tingquist asked how they were going to be the hands and feet of Jesus during COVID, Madelyn Eveld, 18, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Charleston, thought of Instagram. Topics from Church teaching and personal witnesses of YAC members will be posted on the YAC Instagram account, yacdolr.attack, with each reviewed by an adult prior to posting.
“I feel like this is the time where teens are getting to be lukewarm Catholics because it’s hard to be involved in things. My goal with instagram is to get them involved and to show teens are trying to grow in faith … that they’re not alone,” Eveld said.
YAC members have their individual roles, including Abby Ellis, 17, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock, who will be the mediator between the adult and YAC members who are posting and correcting grammar.
“For me, starting out during quarantine in March and April, I fell off the wagon for a bit. I didn’t have much of a faith life after that happened,” Ellis said. “Because … we weren’t having Mass, we weren’t having CYM or any YAC events, so I lost interest for a bit. I think it’s important to have a connection with other people.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, beyond the health risks of COVID-19, “many adolescents’ social, emotional and mental well-being has been impacted by the pandemic. Trauma faced at this developmental stage may have long-term consequences across their lifespan.”
Tingquist said each youth minister has been sent COVID-19 guidelines, safety precautions and waivers for parents to sign for in-person meetings.
“I do think it’s the feeling of isolation. It’s the need to be around people you see the face of God in,” Tingquist said. “I think we really need to reach out with a reminder to these kids that the Lord is walking with them.”
Jessica Petter, youth ministry director at St. Stephen Church in Bentonville, spent two months creating a 90-page workbook, drawing from Life Teen materials and the model the national Catholic youth organization uses for its annual Catholic Youth Ministry Conference. It includes Life Teen curriculum, Bible studies, prayers and a journaling section.
With 45 students registered, she hopes the workbook will keep in-person and virtual participants on the same page. But no one will be required to use it, Petter added.
“We try to be the place that’s it’s OK to not be OK. You’re in a safe place and with people that care about you and want you to be the best version of yourself, so I'm hoping this will be a resource for them,” particularly the journaling portion of the workbook.
Julia and Ben Sleeper, high school youth ministry directors at St. Mary Church in Paragould, have met twice in-person with seven teens. She said they attempted some Zoom calls in the spring, but “those weren’t super well attended.”
“We are still super rural and not everyone has excellent internet where we live,” Julia said.
On Sept. 13, they sat distanced in lawn chairs, but for the second meeting, moved into the parish hall to avoid the loud train on nearby tracks.
“We’re taking a completely different teaching approach,” Sleeper said.
Instead of having Scripture and ice breaker activities, they surveyed the students to find out what they wanted to talk about, using the texting app Remind where students could text them individually with their responses.
COVID-19 pushed back youth ministry’s official start at Christ the King Church in Little Rock, as it did at several parishes, to give kids time to settle into school.
The Youth Advisory Team at Christ the King has 12 teens, who kicked off their year with a four-hour retreat Aug. 30, distanced in the parish’s Youth Center. The theme this year with all the youth activities is more meetings, but smaller groups.
“They just need that community,” director of youth ministry Bevie Davies said of virtual meetings. “It's ironic with social media and cell phones and all that, but they're really seeing they need to be together.”
The larger group activities on Wednesday nights will be outdoors, distanced and mask-mandatory. The youth music ministry Team Jesus will also meet again on Mondays, with special masks for musicians and other safety protocols. This year, they’ll start using the free, conversation-based Alpha Youth Series, which emphasizes “getting back to the basics of the faith,” Davies said.
Alpha groups will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Teens participating in the 40 Days for Life campaign meet on Fridays. Davies added any teen who feels more comfortable participating virtually will have options.
“We wouldn’t have tried this if it hadn’t been for the pandemic,” Davies said of Alpha. “We did have to start thinking outside the box.”
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