Catholic youths in the minority are sticking together at Dillon parish

DILLON — Catholic teenagers at St. Louis Church are beginning the second year of a youth program that is as much a source of faith support as it is a social outlet.

St. Louis, with 60 households, is a small parish serving an area of the Pee Dee region with a scattered Catholic population.

In 2007, parishioner Cierra Bookman, 15, decided to find a way to help the young Catholics at St. Louis find their own voice.

A native of North Carolina, Bookman moved to Dillon in 2000. When she entered her teens, she said she felt slighted in the community because the majority of her peers were either Protestant or nondenominational Christians. Many didn’t understand the Catholic faith, she said, and some were downright hostile when they discovered she was Catholic.

Bookman, who is home-schooled, wanted to learn about her faith and share her feelings about it with people her own age. She discovered her friend Elizabeth McClellan, 15, had the same goal.

“We were anxious to meet other Catholic kids, wondering if those kids were going through some of the same things we were,” Bookman said.

With the support of her parents, Bookman obtained permission from the church’s administrator to start a youth group in fall 2007. They selected books to read and study together, and started meeting weekly to discuss Scripture and aspects of Catholic faith.

Parents from the parish supervise and moderate the meetings, but other than that all the organization has come from Bookman and the other teens, said Michelle Bookman, her mother.

“I think it’s been a great thing for the parish. We have very few teens and they really didn’t interact with each other before this group,” Mrs. Bookman said. “Now, they’ve all become very close friends. They can support each other.”

Average attendance at meetings ranges from about 10 to 15 with a few members commuting from Latta and other nearby communities. Bookman said she has heard from teens from nearby Bennettsville who also would like to start attending meetings if they can arrange transportation.

The parish also serves Church of the Infant Jesus Mission in Marion, which has about 84 households and its own youth program. Bookman said she hopes to plan some activities this year in conjunction with the Marion group, and to help establish a closer bond between the two.

The teens at St. Louis are also focused on social outreach in the Dillon area.

During the Christmas season, the young people bought food, clothing and other items for families who had lost everything to house fires, McClellan said.

The group is looking for a new project to work on during 2008-09.

Their first meeting this year will be on Sept. 24. McClellan said one of the goals is to organize more purely social activities, such as bowling and skating nights, where Catholic teens can meet and network.

“I’ve been really happy with how everything has worked out. Even though it’s just a group of kids hanging out together, it’s been so much fun just getting to know each other and learn about our faith together,” Bookman said. “I feel like I’m a whole lot closer to the church, because anytime you have friends who are also involved in something, you learn more yourself. You realize that the church is about so much more than just your experience.”

McClellan is a sophomore at Dillon Christian School, where she takes Bible classes and is exposed to the basics of Christian faith. But she said youth meetings allow her a weekly chance to focus on the specifics of Catholicism and how to live out her faith in daily life.

She said the group also discusses ways that Catholic faith can help teens overcome daily temptations and pressures.

“I feel like this is a special project and a lot of the kids are really getting into this,” McClellan said. “It’s kind of nice to be able to get together and hear what other kids have to say about their faith, to discuss things with each other and to learn from each other.”