Youth groups in the Grand Strand build community

MYRTLE BEACH — Catholic youth groups are growing and flourishing along the Grand Strand.

From North Myrtle Beach to Pawleys Island, middle- and high-school age Catholics have more opportunities than ever before to interact. For the first time, all of the Diocese of Charleston’s churches in Horry County have full-time youth directors.  Blossoming youth programs exist at Precious Blood of Christ Church on Pawleys Island, and St. Mary, Our Lady of Ransom Church in Georgetown.

Amy Horan, youth director at St. James Church in Conway, said an increase in the Catholic population along the Strand is a big part of the surge in youth numbers. She also echoed other directors, saying that more young Catholics are participating because they want an active role in their faith.

“There’s a real desire on the part of these kids to get involved in things and try to live their faith on a daily basis,” Horan said.

At St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach, youth director Matthew Lageman has seen membership increase steadily since he started work there four years ago. Lageman said 74 students attended the kickoff meeting for the  junior high youth group in early September. About 150 youths that age are registered either at St. Andrew School or the parish religious education program.

“That shows about 50 percent of junior high kids registered here are interested in the youth program, and that’s really exciting,” he said. “There is usually no ministry that gets 50 percent of the targeted group involved. It’s usually a big accomplishment if you have 10 percent.

“We’re excited that the youth programs here are so big and active and alive,” Lageman added. Many of his new members are teens whose families recently moved to the area. “They come from very Catholic areas up north and they want their children in Catholic school and/or involved in Catholic youth.”

At St. Andrew, Lageman strives to plan activities that range from faith sharing  to community service. For the past few years, the high school group has worked with Caring 4 Kids, a Myrtle Beach-based charity, to provide Christmas gifts and other assistance for more than 100 children in a community near Loris.

Church youth leaders also are working on ways to help teens from different parishes interact more frequently and form a network of peers.

That’s especially important in South Carolina, they say, where Catholics are still the religious minority.

“The kids in our youth groups want to know about their faith and what to say to their non-Catholic friends,” said Susan Starr, director of youth ministry and the Lifeteen program at St. Michael Church in Garden City. “It’s a real challenge for the youth minister to keep the kids in the home court, because there are so many other churches out there with youth programs. Also, these kids are friends with other people who have some big prejudices. They get questions you wouldn’t believe, like ‘Do Catholics worship statues?’ ”

Youths from St. Andrew, Precious Blood of Christ and St. Michael churches meet once a month to attend XLT, pronounced “exalt,” worship services at St. Michael. XLT combines upbeat praise and music with solemn prayer and adoration. It was introduced in the diocese in 2006.

Starr said the three churches also organize retreats and other activities together.

Niki Fox began her job as the first full-time youth director at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in North Myrtle Beach in early August.  The parish traditionally had a large number of senior citizens, but more young families have moved in recently. Before, volunteers and part-time workers organized youth activities at the parish. She said her challenge is to help the youths become comfortable with each other.

“These first few weeks are about building community,” she said. “They need to learn you can be excited about your faith. There’s a serious aspect of the faith, where you humble yourself, but at the same time their Catholic faith is something they can be excited and passionate about.” Fox hopes to start activities with other parishes in early 2009.

When asked, youths say the chance to worship and socialize with other Cath olics has helped them.  

“When I joined, it was mainly to be with my friends, but over the years I really grew in my faith,” said Sarah Robinson, 17, a high school senior and five-year member of youth groups at St. Andrew. “I wasn’t really all that connected to my faith when I first started, and now I want to eventually work as a youth minister.”