By Paul A. Barra
LEESVILLE — As the band rocked to a strong beat, pre-teen participants danced and moved with the rhythm, singing and shouting and throwing their arms in the air. The lyrics were all about praising God, but the kids were mostly having fun. Especially the counselors.
That’s what the Christian Leadership Institute for junior high schoolers is all about: Learning the Catholic faith and the Bible, finding out how to lead and increasing one’s spirituality — and all of it punctuated by sheer fun and intense competition.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” admitted Camby Lewis of the Cathedral parish in Charleston, even though she was speaking just after memorizing the names of every Bible book, Old and New Testaments.
Alex Slessman of St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville agreed with Camby’s assessment, saying: “I especially liked the band. It was also a good chance to learn about my religion.”
The Christian rock band that entertained and motivated the junior high schoolers was comprised of three counselors, young adults and high school students who volunteered to lead their younger brethren in the five-day institute that began June 28 at Camp Kinard in rural Lexington County. The 16 counselors make great sacrifices, according to the diocesan director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, wedging their volunteer work into summer schedules already packed with college summer programs and jobs.
“The counselors often grow more than the kids do. They become mom and dad, counselor, firemen, policeman and friend, all rolled up into one,” said Jerry White. “They witness better than adults and the junior high kids really look up to them. It’s very impressive, the dedication of these young people.”
Michael Sylvester, 21, the drummer in the no-name band, said that playing music and counseling kids is “an awesome ministry.” Helping younger children to learn is a way of teaching yourself, a way to grow in your own faith.
“Kids learn in different ways. When we play, we pray. I learn as much as the kids, or more, and these weeks re-energize my batteries,” Sylvester said.
Karla Hoppmann, 17, from St. Joseph in Columbia, agreed that acting the counselor role helps her in her own faith walk: “I really enjoy sharing my faith with young people and getting them excited about Catholicism. It’s amazing to see them change, knowing that I’m changing too.”
Zach Nicks of St. Andrew in Clemson, also 17, said that he “got hooked” on the value of these diocesan leadership weeks when he was a freshman four years ago. All the counselors have gone through extensive periods of training, White said, and they all have a heart for youth. Many, he said, will become parish youth ministers when they get older. That is exactly the career path that Nicks envisions in South Carolina.
“This is something I love, something I have a real passion for. Some people say you have found the right job if you can imagine doing it every day for the rest of your life. That’s how I feel about working with youth,” he said.
The Daniel High senior said that he was reluctant to demonstrate the depth of his faith when he was younger, but that his counseling work has opened him up. He has learned to be a role model, and he has learned how he himself needs to change. His mother, Judy Nicks, said that change for the better is the hallmark of CLI events.
“Kids who come here learn how much some of their peers love God, and their enthusiasm catches on. Parents better watch out,” she said.
Nicks was one of five adults supervising things at the 2002 CLI. Another was Deborah Wingard of St. Andrew in Myrtle Beach. She said that she can visualize religious vocations emanating from the experience.
“This is the most exciting and encouraging thing I’ve seen in our church,” Wingard said. “It’s an enormous answer to a prayer and will bring about vocations.”
Danner Thompson, youth minister at St. James in Conway, noticed the love and spiritual growth among the participants: “They’re a joy to be around. I think of them all as my kids.”
That attitude and the dynamic format of the five-day events have led to huge successes in the entire youth ministry program in the Diocese of Charleston.
According to White, the Junior High CLI has grown from 25 three years ago to this year’s capacity crowd of 54; next week’s High School CLI is also maxed out at 90. CLI counselors are usually members of the diocese’s Evangelization Team, which puts on the annual Catholic Youth Conference, which has grown to 850 participants, with dozens on a waiting list each year. Applications this year for E-Team membership numbered 45; only 25 can be accepted. He said that there may be a national shortage in quality youth ministers, but the numbers and enthusiasm for the faith that he sees at every retreat and conference indicates the exact opposite in the quality of South Carolina youth.