Shooing mosquitoes and dodging the occasional wasps’ nest, teens from St. Peter Church’s “TORCH” youth group toiled to reclaim a stretch of holy ground: an overgrown Stations of the Cross pathway, set deep in the woods of the Teresian Spirituality Center in Covington.
The young workers said they could imagine pilgrims praying along the pine-shaded trail once their to-do list was completed: clearing the pathway of branches, lining it with fresh pine needles and scrubbing down the 14 weather-beaten markers depicting Christ’s passion and death.
“I didn’t even know this was here!” said Maria Tiziani, a homeschooled freshman, defying the tropical conditions to rake the secluded prayer site with her fellow members of TORCH. “It’s nice to take nature walks, especially with the Stations of the Cross in them. I think the solitude helps you get a deeper relationship with God, so I think it’s a good idea to get this nice and clean again.”
Passing on torch of faith
The service project was part of TORCH’s fourth annual “Mystery Mission,” a weeklong July camp that deployed 57 teens to a variety of locations in need of their help. The “mystery” part was that no one was given a schedule; the teens, sent out in teams of six, never knew where or with whom they would be working from one hour to the next.
“It pushes them out of their comfort zone,” said Audrey Huck, who devised the service model four years ago as St. Peter’s youth director. Huck, who currently teaches sixth-grade English at St. Peter School, said that by continually reconfiguring the work crews and throwing teens into surprise service venues, cliques and cynicism evaporate.
“By the end of the week, everyone’s really close to everyone,” Huck said. “We are a unified youth group, instead of a bunch of separate groups. The kids work so hard; they’re so efficient; they’re so eager to serve. It’s beautiful to see the young church alive like that.”
This year’s slate of service venues was wide-ranging. Teens were sent to assist Sister Theresa Berlin, a St. Peter parishioner and hermit, in her ministry of bringing Christ to residents of a low-income area of Covington. Upon arriving at Sister’s tiny fellowship hall – called “The Blue Stand” – the TORCH helpers cleared brush for the planting of fruit trees and freshened the stand’s interior.
“St. Tammany’s such a wealthy (civil) parish that it’s easy to forget there’s poverty here,” Huck said, noting that her youth also went door to door to meet residents of the mostly African-American neighborhood and play soccer with their children. “It’s really good for the kids to see that their experience is not everyone’s experience.”
Other service sessions included playing games with residents of Forest Manor Nursing Home, doing yard work for a shut-in and completing a checklist of parish projects assigned by St. Peter’s pastor, Father Otis Young.
Teen crews held up pro-life signs at the corner of East Boston and Jefferson streets, measuring their impact by counting drivers’ honks, smiles and thumbs-ups.
“There are many people who are not for abortion, but they don’t want to think about it,” said TORCH’s director, Michelle Seghers. “We make the comparison to Nazi Germany and how the Germans didn’t want to know about the concentration camps. Now they’re facing that horrific realization that they didn’t say anything. So we’re just trying to keep (abortion) in people’s minds.”
Stocked shelves with food
The Covington Food Bank has been a beneficiary of all four Mystery Missions. The teens help restock its shelves at a time families need food most – when children are out of school and have no access to free breakfast and lunch.
“When we told (the food bank) we wanted to help, they said to us, ‘You can’t volunteer if there’s no food to give,’” Huck said.
So, in the week leading up to Mystery Mission, the young evangelists went door to door to collect food, leaving collection bags detailing their effort if no one was home. The drive, which netted a record 12,400 pounds of food and $1,240 in donations, concluded at St. Peter Church, with parishioners invited to place contributions in a truck before and after weekend Masses.
Mystery Mission also reminded the teens they needn’t go out of the country or pay a lot of money to be missionaries. Although they primarily ministered in the Covington area, they went further afield this summer, painting Sci Academy, a New Orleans charter school, with the non-profit Youth Rebuild New Orleans; and helping at the soup kitchen and vacation Bible school at St. Agnes Parish in Baton Rouge.
Christian Comenge, a homeschooled junior on his fourth Mystery Mission, said he enjoys being around like-minded teens who put their faith at the center of their lives, while having fun.
“You don’t get judged; you have the same goals,” Christian said. “I wasn’t really expecting it to give me much, but I’ve changed my relationship with God; I’ve gotten stronger in my prayer; and now I want to focus on being a leader and helping bring the younger kids up,” he said, adding that bringing smiles to the faces of senior citizens are among his favorite mission moments.
“Being pro-life means being there for the elderly, too,” Christian said. “They struggle and a lot of them are lonely, because some of them tell me their families don’t come to see them.”
Reflection times built in
After each workday, the teens decamped to their overnight base of Bocamb Farms in Covington to hear from guest speakers and take part in skits, games and eucharistic adoration. In the spirit of the “TORCH” acronym – Taking On Radical Christian Holiness – they punctuated each day with Mass and prayer, dropping everything at noon to pray the Angelus and at 3 p.m. for the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
“You just see the kids transform,” Huck said. “Mystery Mission has become essential to the work we do the rest of the year (in TORCH) because we can start the new school year as a family, instead of a bunch of kids who don’t know each other.”
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.