Teens experience community and praise at Steubenville East

LOWELL -- Steubenville East, held at University of Massachusetts Lowell's Tsongas Center, July 14 to July 16, wasn't exactly what first-timer attendee Maggie Van Dyne was expecting, but she's not disappointed.

She said she thought "it would be a lot more dull," with a laugh, speaking to The Pilot July 15.

Yet dull, said Van Dyne, a rising high school junior from Chelmsford, isn't what she got.

"The first thing (attendees experience) when we walked into the Tsonga Arena was music blaring and everyone getting really excited," she said. "It was like we were at a concert or something."

"It was a great time to kind of connect with the people around us we didn't know through that kind of music, even if it was just 10 minutes of us jumping up and down. It was fun," she said.

Van Dyne was one of hundreds of youths from across the region who attended Steubenville East, one of five Steubenville Youth Conferences that are held annually by Life Teen around the United States. The conference is focused on providing teens and youth groups with opportunities to meet other likeminded Catholics, learn more about the messages of the Gospel and strengthen their bonds with Jesus.

During the three-day conference, teens attended workshops, Masses, prayer sessions, and keynote talks, while also participating in reconciliation and eucharistic adoration. Live music was also provided.

Speakers and musicians during this year's conference included Chris Mueller, Jon Niven, Father Jose Robles-Sanchez, Leah Darrow, Joel Stepanek, and Kelly Colangelo.

Darrow was perhaps the most well-known speaker. A one-time contestant on the reality television show "America's Next Top Model" and a former professional model, Darrow is now a Catholic speaker and author.

In her keynote talk to the teens July 15, she spoke about her falling away from the Catholic Church when she was a teenager, her life as a model, and finally her transition to an advocate for the faith.

Her initial break from the Church began, she said, when she lost her virginity at 15 years old. It was from that "moment I began to identify myself and see myself as my sin, as my shame, and as my guilt," Darrow said.

Thinking God wouldn't forgive her sin, "I allowed the world to tell me what love was, I allowed the world to tell me what beauty was and success was and identity and everything."

Motivated by fame and money, she ended up on "America's Next Top Model" and was modeling professionally.

Darrow's face began to appear on billboards and her paychecks "had a comma" in them. Yet, still, she recalled, she never felt at peace.

It was during a particularly sultry photoshoot that Darrow suddenly had the words "I made you for more" flood into her heart and into her mind. She internalized the words, realizing what they meant and perhaps where they came from, and left the shoot.

Darrow called her father, who greeted her with open arms and insisted she go to confession, an idea that she said frightened her after spending 10 years away from the Church.

"I identified so much with my guilt and my shame and my sins that I thought I was not worthy of Christ, clearly because I didn't know who Christ was," she said.

Yet, when she went to confession, she opened up, telling Christ all of her sins and her fears. The experience changed her.

"I gave Him my brokenness, and in return He gave me mercy and peace," she said.

"Tonight, you have this beautiful opportunity for adoration, and Christ is literally going to be walking up and down these aisles," she said, referring to the eucharistic adoration that would follow her talk.

"A conference won't save you. A good talk won't save you. There is only one person who saves -- Christ. Christ saves," she said.

"There is something powerful the Lord wants to do in your life, but only you can respond and only you can be there to answer the Lord when He says 'What do you want me to do for you?'" Darrow said to the teens.

Speaking to The Pilot following the Eucharistic Adoration, July 15, John William Perry, a rising sophomore from Enfield, Conn., said he enjoyed his time at the conference thus far.

"I like it a lot. It's a great experience. You get closer to Christ and it's really fun," he said, adding that this is his second year attending.

"There's always a sense of community when I come here, even with new people," he continued.

"I've always loved the whole experience."

Sarah Beard, a first-time adult attendee traveling with a group from Blue Hills Collaborative in Hyde Park, said she liked seeing so many youth get excited about the Catholic faith.

"Just to see the kids get so involved in their religion and their practice and their faith is inspiring to me," she said.

"To see so many children who are interested in not only this Life Teen movement but in the idea of God and in the idea of the Church is amazing."