Monday, May 30, 2016 - Updated: 10:00 pm
For most high school students, summer means a break from the grind of the academic routine. Summer jobs, family vacation, two-a-day sports practices and spending time with friends quickly fill their schedules. For teens involved with some parish youth groups, however, the chance to participate in a mission trip offers a whole different way to embrace summer vacation.
Mission trips provide an opportunity to activate faith, according to Gary Roney, director of the diocesan Department for Youth and Young Adult Ministry.
“Mission trips make faith a verb,” he said.
Having been recently confirmed, high school students who are part of a mission trip have the chance to get their hands dirty and be active in their faith. Getting to live their faith in such a concrete way gives many teens a sense of satisfaction, Roney said.
A number of area youth groups have mission trips slated for this summer.
Holy Sepulcher and St. John Neumann parishes
The youth group of Holy Sepulcher Parish in Glade Mills is partnering with St. John Neumann Parish in Franklin Park for a mission trip to Logan County, West Virginia.
Logan County has a high poverty rate, said Holy Sepulcher youth minister Jacob Williamson. He said the youths will spend their time painting houses, building wheelchair ramps and working with children who come to the mission site for lunch, afternoon programming and dinner. A priest will join the group, allowing them to participate in daily Mass, the sacrament of reconciliation and Eucharistic adoration as part of their mission experience.
Though the youth group invests significant time and energy into their project, they benefit tremendously as well.
“Mission trips allow teens to not only heed our Lord’s command to love our neighbor,” Williamson said, “but also provide the missionaries an authentic experience of community life with each other.”
St. Alphonsus and St. Ursula parishes
Mike Shipe, youth minister at St. Alphonsus Parish in Wexford, has led students on service trips ranging from tornado disaster relief efforts in Joplin, Missouri, and aiding Hurricane Sandy victims in New Jersey to working with urban poor populations in South Peoria, Illinois. This year, Shipe’s youth group will travel with teens from St. Ursula Parish in Allison Park to spend a week in Pikeville, Kentucky, through the Experience Mission organization.
During this first encounter in rural Appalachia, Shipe expects the high school students to take on some basic building projects, work with local children in either a day-care center or vacation Bible school setting, and even engage in direct evangelization with residents. The mission trip will include daily Mass at a local parish, which Shipe believes is important for the students’ experience and the people to whom they witness.
“On a past trip, the pastor of the local parish where we went to daily Mass told me we revitalized his parish by our presence,” Shipe said. For people to see teenagers demonstrate such conviction in their faith brings a new energy to the parish, he explained.
St. Ferdinand Parish
Staying closer to home, St. Ferdinand in Cranberry Township will coordinate its mission experience through Hosanna Industries Inc. in Rochester. Youth ministers Debbie Combes and Andrea Wheeler have arranged a three-day work camp for the youth group.
Past mission encounters with Hosanna Industries include a “blitz build,” where the youth group partnered with the owners to construct a house in a single week and smaller projects such as tearing off roofs, putting up siding and cleaning cemeteries. Daily work concluded with Scripture reading and reflection time in the chapel, often with the homeowners present.
“It is important for the teens to see some of the many people who need a helping hand — for them to truly be Christ’s hands and feet,” Wheeler said. “The mission experiences make their faith mean more because they are out there living their faith and not just talking about it.”
Combes and Wheeler opted for a condensed mission experience this summer because they have incorporated it within the larger context of the group’s Year of Mercy projects. In addition to the three-day mission project, St. Ferdinand youths raised money for 960 cases of water that they will distribute in Flint, Michigan (giving drink to the thirsty, one of the corporal works of mercy). And they have several similar undertakings slated for this summer.
St. Gregory and St. Matthias parishes
Now in its 21st year, the Appalachia group started by St. Gregory’s Rosemarie Koska has become a parish tradition. The annual mission trip, now sponsored by St. Gregory in Zelienople and St. Matthias in Evans City, is unique because it attracts such a cross-section from both parishes as well as members of the broader Zelienople community.
The trip this June will include more than 90 participants from the youth group, parents, retired parishioners and members of Zelienople’s English Lutheran Church community. Current college students and young adults who first experienced the trip in high school often return to help out, according to St. Gregory youth minister Charlotte Zilavy.
Zilavy and her husband, Mark, bring the group to Preston County, West Virginia, each summer. She said the youth group works diligently to raise money throughout the year to make the trip affordable. Teens who wish to participate raise funds by making and selling hoagies each month. Generous parishioners also help to offset costs.
Zilavy coordinates the program through the Catholic parish in Preston County. She said past participants have done everything from building ramps, decks and staircases to putting outdoor additions on trailers.
“The kids learn to use power tools, dig post holes, build roofs, replace shingles and do lots of repairing and painting inside and out,” Zilavy said.
Returning to the same community in West Virginia each year has allowed many of the young missionaries to develop relationships with the residents over time. The high-schoolers say reuniting with residents is like being with family again, she said.
SS. John and Paul Parish
In July, the youth group of SS. John and Paul Parish in Franklin Park/Marshall Township will travel to Oil City, Pennsylvania, for a mission trip through the Catholic Heart Workcamp.
Scott Lieb, director of youth ministry at SS. John and Paul, said that during the day the cohort will divide into smaller groups assigned to various worksites. Youth group members will join with Catholic youths from different parishes to work on projects like painting a house or volunteering at a child-care facility. Each evening, the groups come together for a high-energy program that includes skits, music and prayer.
The mission experience is significant because it asks teens to take ownership of their faith in a new way, Lieb said.
“The spiritual component of these activities,” he said, “confronts teens with the choice that they have to make: am I doing this just because it looks good to others, or am I doing this because I want my heart to be changed by Jesus?”
Ultimately, the missionaries themselves benefit far more than the people whose homes receive a new wheelchair ramp or a fresh coat of paint, according to Roney. For one week, teens become part of an authentic Christian community that works together, prays together, eats together and plays together.
“It’s a formative experience,” he said, and a striking example of St. John Paul II’s notion that our being increases in the measure that we give it away.