Teens take the ‘Gospel Road’ and serve poor locally

WHITINSVILLE — “It is trendy to talk about the poor, it’s another thing to talk to the poor.” That quote from Mother Teresa was a recurring theme for 56 archdiocesan youth and their leaders during the week-long service program Gospel Road 2005 Aug. 1-5 at the Oakhurst Conference and Retreat Center in Whitinsville.

Father Tom Dunne, director of the archdiocese’s Office for Youth Ministry, said the idea for implementing Gospel Road came from another diocese that wrote a brief document on a program that involved bringing kids to Kentucky to serve those in need. Father Dunne used the same formula but localized it to the Boston area about ten years ago.

Gospel Road eventually became a three-staged program having a local Gospel Road, a national Gospel Road II, where teens have traveled to other states, and an international Gospel Road III program that gave youth the opportunity to deal with poverty on a worldwide level in both Peru and Bolivia, he said.

The intent of Gospel Road, said Father Dunne, is for “people to come together and form communities and together experience a sense of teamwork, a moving out of one’s comfort zone, and sharing in appropriate ways, one’s feelings —and bringing all of that to prayer.”

Father Chris O’Connor, a professor at St. John Seminary and director of the five-day service program for the past two years said that this summer “we were stressing that we go out to help people not to feel better about ourselves but rather because we know God loves us so much and that we are called to love others — and one way to do that is to serve.”

The Gospel Road experience begins on a Monday when the teens arrive and are divided into two communities and placed in small service groups within their community, said Father O’Connor. Each group is then directed through various activities and challenges, similar to a “ropes course,” he added. Father O’Connor said that the idea behind these teambuilding exercises is that “we are called to be the Body of Christ.” The small groups work together to solve problems and strategize how to use each other’s gifts, and carry that experience out to their service days, he said.

Tuesdays through Thursdays are spent going out with their small groups to pre-determined sites which this year included the Worcester based Pernet Family Health Service, Centro Las Americas, The Refugee Apostolate, Catholic Charities, and the St. Camillus Health Center, Whitinsville and the Michael Carter Lisnow Repite Center, Hopkington. Each large community was given three of the sites to rotate through during the week, said Father O’Connor.

Mary Jo Kriz, a volunteer at the Office of Youth Ministry, was instrumental in assisting Father O’Connor with the task of finding a variety of places to serve. “ We wanted the teens to have an experience with children, the elderly and hands-on-service,” she said.

Kriz said that the most moving thing about Gospel Road for her was “watching how very quickly the groups came together that didn’t know each other, to work together to serve” and “listening to the teenagers come back from their experience of service and how they were excited about the changes in themselves.”

Kriz recalled that after a visit to Catholic Charites to work with a group of refugee children, ages 4-14 years old, from Liberia “one of our teens came back very excited because she was able to teach someone her own age long-division.”

The experiences varied depending on the site and what was going on that day, said Kriz.

She spoke of one particularly rewarding day of service when the residents at the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center went to a PawSox game and the teens stayed behind and painted the playground, stained the deck, and did general maintenance. On other days, the teens interacted with the residents, children and adults with disabilities, singing, playing games, doing artwork, eating –whatever their daily routine was, she said.

Father O’Connor who has helped at Gospel Road in previous years as a small group leader said that he now fully appreciates the adults —including three seminarians, women religious, youth ministers and committed parents—that take off from work and volunteer their time because they are “committed to kids.”

Armand Di Lando, an active parishioner at St. Mary Parish in Chelmsford, initially volunteered to be a chaperone before being asked to lead one of the two large communities, this year named after St. Vincent de Paul and St. Katharine Drexel. The two communities allowed for smaller discussion groups in the evening when the teens and leaders processed what they experienced “on the road” that day, said DiLando.

For 21-year-old Joe Cussen, a parishioner at St. Joseph Parish, Kingston who acted as a leader this year, his Gospel Road journey began in the ninth grade. “My mother was the youth minister at our parish and trying to get the parish involved in archdiocesan events,” said Cussen. He attended Steubenville East — a high school weekend retreat organized by the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, in conjunction with La Salette Shrine in Attleboro — and had a great time and “from there I got involved,” he said.

Cussen said that Gospel Road “is a unique program, an evangelization program, where it will reach out to young people and allow them to see Jesus in the poor and through serving.”

"It meets teenagers where they're at," he added.

Each morning, Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 a.m., the youth and adult leaders had the opportunity to attend Mass in a small chapel, said Father Dunne, with a final community Mass shared on Friday afternoon. He said he found it “very heartening” that most of the teens, unlike previous years, would go to the optional Mass and then eat a rushed breakfast before going off to their day’s service location. It was a sign, said Father Dunne, that “these kids were ready and deserved to go deeper with a Gospel Road II.”

But that, he said, would depend on the way the people in the parishes and archdiocese came forward to help.

Bridget Cullen, a 15-year-old from St. Catherine Parish in Westford back this summer from her second Gospel Road, said she would welcome the opportunity to serve the poor in other states. “Now that I have experienced helping others locally, it would be a great chance to become more aware of and become a solution to poverty and needs further from home,” she said.

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