In my May 20 column, I wrote of an Illinois Catholic teen missions group headed here to serve in Alaska for a week. While they were hard at work here this week, I tagged along with two of the group’s six teams. What an energized group of kids! Their presence here fulfills a strong social justice orientation taken seriously in their parish and their personal lives. The group’s leaders, Jeff and Diane Goffinet, parish youth ministers at Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Herrin, Illinois, met and married during this youth ministry 26 years ago.
Clearly not vacation time, the teams’ days were filled with long service hours, short lunch breaks and spiritual times beginning and ending each day.
Monday, I caught up with Jeff’s team at the Alaska Botanical Garden, weeding, mulching with wood chips in the garden and applying them to trails around the perimeter fence. Each team has two teen team leaders. I observed total coordination with this team as Jeff and I talked. At one point, a team member called for a needed water break. By group consensus, the whole team breaks when one calls a break. Noting the absence of cellphones, Jeff explained the group decides their use. They agreed in advance that no cellphone use would be permitted during the day, but only from 4 to 6 in the evening.
Each team prepares food for the entire group one day of their stay. The group stayed at Lumen Christi High School at St. Benedict’s Parish. Monday afternoon, Jeff’s team worked at Clare House, the women’s shelter. Only women team members were permitted to work inside, while the men busied themselves with outside chores. The entire mission group provides its own food, transportation and lodging, and doesn’t depend on the local community.
Diane’s team worked at Bean’s Café all day Monday. Some teens did prep work for the cooks, while another assisted a cook making soup for lunch. The remainder of the team unloaded a van full of donated food and moved it into storage. Part of the team members assisted with serving lunch to the clients, while others made hundreds of sandwiches and snack packs for distribution later in the day.
Catching up with Diane’s team again on Tuesday, I found them working next door at Brother Francis Shelter, doing landscaping and cleaning up trash on-site, and along nearby East Third Avenue up to Ingra Street. Dressed in bright safety vests and wearing smiles, the youths presented cheerful, smiling faces to the many clients of Bean’s and Brother Francis. I noticed many smiles were returned.
Spiritual development, an important component of the trip, occurs nightly when an adult from the team talks about the week’s theme, Pope Francis’ call for a “Year of Mercy,” and the importance of service. One youth then adds his or her personal reflection on the theme. Heads of various Catholic religious orders and Catholic clergy from across the U.S., including bishops and archbishops, wrote letters of encouragement to the group as a whole, some of which are read nightly.
Tuesday night was a special time, as prayers of blessing were offered with connected outstretched hands over the group of graduating seniors.
Leaders and teams appreciate the universality of spiritual themes in the Anchorage Catholic community being the same as in Herrin. According to Jeff Goffinet, these trips address all components of solid youth spirituality: community life, leadership development, spirituality, liturgy and worship, and catechesis, saying the average youth on this trip will pray four to six times daily in community. When the youths serve in various parishes here, their instructions are to drop whatever they’re doing and join any parish Mass that happens to be scheduled during their work time.
Wednesday night’s service focus reflected on the meaning of home and what home truly is. Unbeknownst to the youths, their parents had written a letter to be shared with their son/daughter that night.
“It’s an emotional time,” Jeff recounted, “as many of the youth will have never received such a personal letter from their parent.”
In response, the youths are encouraged to write back to their parents at this time.
“We have been so overjoyed to be working with these young volunteers from Illinois,” said Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services in Alaska. “They’ve accomplished a great deal in terms of work done and have made an even greater contribution in terms of connection and community. They represent young people from across the country, ready to work and contribute to make their world better. We are so fortunate that they chose to work with us in living out their faith, and helping us to fulfill our mission of serving the poor and those in need, strengthening families and individuals, and advocating for social justice. With 11 young people like this in the world, I know there is a bright future ahead of us.”
I asked Diane Goffinet about the Catholicity of this mission.
“I am a social justice Catholic and love the part of our faith that is all about evangelization and social justice,” she replied. “The only way to evangelize people is not only to talk with them, telling them to come and believe in Jesus and come to church with you, but more importantly to have them see how you live your life. And that’s what we are teaching our kids.”
One team leader, a high school senior named Justice, said she wants to become an oncologist. Asked why, she said she wants to help people with cancer because she loves helping people. She wants to do one more year with the youth group, and advised other teens to “find a youth group to get involved with.” Her comments and enthusiasm were typical of the teens from this group that I talked with.
The team cycles among urban, rural and special population missions. Alaska is a target approximately every four years. Last year, they did a rural project on a Cherokee Indian reservation, and the summer before that an urban project in Memphis, Tennessee. Local churches might consider emulating this team’s efforts to find and carry out impactful missions.