By KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — The lights were bright, the music was loud and the laughter contagious at the diocesan youth rally held at St. John Neumann School on Nov. 4, where more than 400 junior high students from throughout South Carolina were captivated by the Gospel message.
The presenters, Cultivation Evangelization Team, are part of Cultivation Ministry based in Chicago. One of their newer services, Outbreak Youth Fest, was the full-day event that S.C. Catholic youth experienced. It featured multimedia presentations, lively music, peer witness and team-building activities.
Cultivation Ministry founder Frank Mecadante started as a youth director in St. Charles, Ill., where he developed a program that grew from 10 youth and two adult leaders to more than 500 youth and 75 leaders. Because of his desire to share his success with other young leaders, convinced of a need for youth evangelization, he founded the ministry 10 years ago.
The major theme of the daylong fest was, “Open Wide the Doors,” a jubilee theme that asked the young to open their own hearts to Jesus. The related sub themes were how Christ would give purpose to their lives, provide protection, guidance and give perfect love.
“Jesus stands at the door of your heart just waiting for you to let him in. Trust him and base your decisions on him. I know that is a radical way of doing things this day and age, but it is the way to true happiness,” said the vivacious presenter Eric Groth to the large assembly. Groth was like the masters of ceremony for the high-energy day, often reinforcing the Gospel lessons of each activity.
David Easterling from St. Peter Church in Columbia said that the message of trusting God really hit home. “Everything, the music, the skits and videos seemed to say trust God in all things,” said the youth.
One integral part of Cultivation Ministry’s success has been incorporating older peers into the program. High school students who applied for the position of “teen leader” performed and supervised many of the skits and activities. This concept of peer witness is not a new one for diocesan youth ministry director Jerry White, who has been taking advantage of the skills and enthusiasm of older youth in his summer leadership programs.
One of the high school volunteers, Fabian Panduro, a senior from St. Paul the Apostle in Spartanburg, enjoys the active role he can play in other lives. “I can’t describe the feeling of seeing the junior high students transformed before my very eyes. They initially come to an event thinking because it’s Catholic, it is going to be boring, but as the day goes on, you can see a change of heart,” said Panduro, who feels that when the youth find God, their lives are “literally saved.”
Although the task of traveling with 19 junior high students to Columbia would intimidate some adults, Melanie Marrara, youth minister at Jesus, Our Risen Savior in Spartanburg, was glad to do it. She felt the day was definitely well spent and also commented on the youth helpers.
“I think it is wonderful how the older teens are so willing to proclaim the Gospel. It makes a lasting impact because the junior high students really look up to the older students,” said Marrara.
The real seal of approval came from junior high participant Nathaniel Thomas from St. Philip Neri in Fort Mill, “It was certainly worth the $27! I learned that Jesus can’t get into your heart until you let him in.” The theme of “opening the door,” a message as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago, seemed to reach the unreachable through a mix of the wisdom of old with the technology of today.
The celebration of Mass, where Jesus would be present in the Eucharist, was the fitting conclusion of a day spent leading the young to Jesus. Bishop Robert J. Baker, the celebrant, gave the next step for those who have invited Jesus in their hearts.
“You are not far from the kingdom of God, if those of you, like the scribe in today’s reading, got the message of the Gospel today,” said the bishop, who was talking about God’s greatest commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:28-34)
The bishop gave examples of how the saints of yesterday and the saints of today have been successful in living out the challenge of those commands of love. Although it can be discouraging at times, the bishop told the youths not to lose heart trying because, “you are still learning the message of love.”
“By reflecting on Romans 12:12 which says rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, and persevere in prayer, you will have the strength to go on, holding up the saints as role models,” said Bishop Baker.