By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor
More than 60 middle school students spent last Saturday, Aug. 25, dancing to live hip-hop music, doing a service project, worshipping together and discussing what God is calling them to do.
The event, billed as a Junior High Call to Action, was offered by the Archdiocese of Louisville at St. Michael Church.
“God made you with a purpose,” Catholic musician and educator Joe Melendrez told the preteens and teens. “He knows you better than anyone else.”
Melendrez then led the kids in a call and response, singing, “You are sacred. You are set apart.” Over and over, the children echoed his words with one voice.
Melendrez’s presentations — one offered in the morning and another in the afternoon — were part physical, involving dancing and jumping to engage the energy of his listeners, and part faith-based message.
He told them, “When I was in middle school, I was bullied by some people I thought were my friends.”
He came to realize later on, “hurt people hurt people.” In other words, a person who has been hurt may turn around and hurt someone else.
He urged his listeners to pray for people who are hurting. That’s one way of joining God’s team, he said.
“God chose us. He wants us to play on his team,” said Melendrez, who holds a degree in religious studies from the University of Dayton. “God designed us with a purpose and a plan and he has a position for you.”
He encouraged them to follow Mary’s example and say “yes” to God’s purpose.
In between his keynote presentations, the children sat in small groups to discuss how God has chosen them.
The young people also spent part of the day on a service project. They assembled 10,800 rice-based, nutrient-rich meals to help combat hunger in impoverished countries with the help of an organization called Love the Hungry.
While the participants returned to another session with Melendrez, their parents were invited to hear from psychiatrist Dr. Scott Hedges. He spoke about the development of middle school students. He also discussed challenges that arise in this age group, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and pornography.
He noted that depression has “skyrocketed” in this age group among girls. He urged parents to talk to their children and make a plan for monitoring their Internet activity.
Hedges, who is also in formation for the diaconate, told parents their children “need to be anchored by your values and expectations.”
The day concluded with Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who gathered the kids after Mass for a group photo.
During his homily, the archbishop told them about a book on St. Dominic — which he brought with him -— that his sister gave him for Christmas in 1958. The archbishop was in seventh-grade at the time.
“I was inspired by the story of St. Dominic,” he told them. The archbishop said he didn’t realize at the time how much the book had influenced his life. He looked back on the book as he grew older and realized it helped spur his vocation.
“My hope for you is there is a speaker, a high school student or a friend you met who will inspire you to follow Christ,” he told the participants.
Laura Zoeller, who organized the day’s event, said she hopes the participants felt strengthened in their faith and encouraged by meeting other young Catholics.
“We are hopeful that everyone there took away something that is helpful to them in their faith,” said Zoeller, associate director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Youth and Young Adults. “Hopefully the youth will have this as an experience of the larger church in their faith journey.
“A lot of times they think they’re the only ones in the pews. Then they go to an event like this and find they aren’t the only ones. There are a lot of people excited about their Catholic faith,” she said.
Zoeller noted that youth ministers and parents have been asking for a diocesan junior high experience for at least 20 years. Several parishes have organized their own experiences or regional gatherings. But this is the first the archdiocese has sponsored in recent memory.
“I think celebrating Mass with Archbishop Kurtz was a highlight,” she added. “They felt a sense of appreciation from him. I hope they were strengthened by their experience of the body of Christ to go out into the world and share their faith.”