In Gardena: ‘Something wonderful’ for youth
Huge jumpers covered half of the parking lot of St. Anthony of Padua Church on a recent Sunday evening, as Esteban Gonzalez, a junior at Environmental Charter High School, warmed up to go tumbling.
A few years back the 16-year-old was “going the wrong path,” until he started attending confirmation classes and learned about weekly meetings for a group of teenagers like him.
“I knew I was doing wrong,” Gonzalez told The Tidings, “that I needed to become the right person.”
So a year ago, Gonzalez joined Life Teen at the Gardena parish. Today, he is one among many who look forward to attending the “Life Night” meetings, which resumed Sept. 25 after a summer break.
Teenagers --- Catholics and non-Catholics --- are welcome at the Life Nights (or teaching nights). These two-hour meetings follow the Sunday 5:30 p.m. Life Teen Mass, where youth are altar servers, Eucharist ministers and choir members, providing an attractive environment for teens, their peers and relatives to engage in worship, praise and prayer.
At the meetings, trained young adult ministers called core leaders and the D team (those who have experienced Life Teen for at least a year; D stands for disciple) help the high school students stretch their relationship with God. In the process, they learn to develop their talents and gifts, said Carlos Aguilar, St. Anthony’s youth ministry director who since 2005 has overseen Life Teen and Edge, a program for middle school students based on the Life Teen model.
“Our goal,” explained Aguilar, “is to help them [teenagers] understand what God has in store for them: growth in faith and love through the Eucharist and the Mass.”
‘Saints in the making’
“When talking about saints, we think of older people who lived in the past and did great things in their lives bringing people closer to God,” core leader Mary Jo Wiley told more than 30 teenagers gathered during the Oct. 23 Life Night.
The room at the old St. Anthony of Padua Church (across the street from the new church) was decorated with mirrors, in accordance with the evening’s theme: “Mirror of Christ.” Minutes before the youngsters had played a game where they learned about the life of different saints and watched a video in which core leader Jose Sanchez, acting as a reporter, asked college students about qualifications to be a saint.
“Saints were people just like us, ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things,’” Wiley continued. “Some of the saints were even criminals, some were very selfish, and some of them were party-ers.”
But, she added, these people gradually changed their lifestyle.
“Jesus got in their hearts because there is a desire in most people to be good,” Wiley asserted. “I’m sure that at one point in our lives we tell God, ‘We’re going to do this for you,’ but what do we do? We fail. We don’t always do at that moment what we want to do to become closer to God.”
She challenged the high school students to spend 10 minutes of prayer every morning before doing anything else.
“Talk to Him like I’m talking to you and tell him what your hopes are and what you’re going to do for him that day,” she said. “And maybe it won’t be right away, but you’re going to find there’s a change that comes.”
Many people, she said, find peace after spending quiet time with Jesus. “You have the Holy Spirit with you to help you overcome some of these burdens that we have on a day-to-day basis.”
And, after cautioning her audience not to “risk your soul for earthly pleasures,” she offered final words of encouragement: “We’re saints in the making and we all have the opportunity to be ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”
After small group discussions and a closing prayer done in a big circle, the teens were asked to take one of the mirrors decorating the walls as a way to remember they were “made in the image of God.”
‘God forgives all’
For West Coast High School senior Jaime Solis, 16, Life Teen has been a life saver.
As a group leader, he now talks about “surrounding yourself with the right people,” “being closer to God as we worship Him,” and “God forgives all of us.”
Quite a change, he admits, for one who had grown up with friends in elementary school “who had taken the wrong path.” Solis himself had started partying, smoking marijuana and using ecstasy --- until one given day he decided to try what a friend had been sharing with him.
“I’m not the same person,” he smiled, while standing next to Kenia Alcaraz, 16, the friend who never gave up on him after learning at Life Teen to “pay attention to people who show problems and to wait patiently in prayer for them to connect with God.”
“I just told Jaime he should go to a Life Teen meeting to try something new, to meet new people and check how it feels,” said Alcaraz.
But then she left Life Teen for a year because she felt “it was not working” for her. And this time it was Jaime who came to her rescue. He persuaded her to come back.
“When I came again,” she said, “I felt something wonderful.”
Since then they have participated in fall and spring retreats and the summer Life Teen Steubenville Retreat at the University of Arizona, attended by teen leaders from southwestern states. Leadership and vocation workshops are also part of the program.
Once a month the teens also enjoy a social night, when they go to the beach (in summer) or watch a movie. Parents can also join their children during the fall and spring Parent Nights.
“Before coming to Life Teen, he got angry very frequently and took it out on his siblings,” said Lourdes Andrade, mother of 15-year-old Christopher Andrade, who joined the program a year ago. “But today he is very calm, patient. There is a lot of value in studying the Bible.”
For more information about the Life Teen at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Gardena, call Youth Minister Carlos Aguilar, (310) 327-3953 or visit www.saintanthonygardena.org.