After youth group changed her life, teen sets out across country to evangelize

Emily Bennett, an 18-year-old graduate of Utica Academy for International Studies in Sterling Heights, decided to join NET Ministries for a nine-month evangelization mission in Los Angeles after being inspired by retreats at her parish, St. John Vianney in Shelby Township. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Her own faith bolstered during retreats at her parish, 18-year-old Emily Bennett dropped everything and joined NET in Los Angeles

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SHELBY TOWNSHIP — For nine months starting in August, Emily Bennett put her life on hold, her college plans on the back burner and headed to Los Angeles to serve as a part of NET Ministries’ retreat team, spreading the Gospel to middle school and high school kids. 

Bennett, 18, discovered her faith in her early teens, after being invited to attend youth group at St. John Vianney Parish in Shelby Township. 

“My family never really went to church growing up. We did catechesis and made all of our sacraments, but we didn’t go to church,” Bennett told Detroit Catholic. “I never really felt loved until I went to church, and once I found a love like that I wanted to keep going back. I got really involved, and it led to a life with a relationship with God.”

Bennett was introduced to NET — which stands for “National Evangelization Teams” — while attending retreats as part of the youth group. The retreats, she said, during which NET missionaries came to pray with the teens, were always life-changing and helped her grow more deeply in love with her faith. 

Emily Bennett is bubbly and warm, and after discovering her faith at youth group, is now pursuing a life of ministry, first with NET Ministries and later as a social worker. 

“The number of moments in my faith life that I can pinpoint that changed my faith journey and made my faith life better happened during NET retreats,” said Bennett, a recent graduate of the Utica Academy for International Studies in Sterling Heights. “It’s always had a special place in my life, but I never thought it was something I could do and be someone who helps the retreat.”

One day, however, Bennett caught the attention of the youth minister, Carly Fleury, and assistant youth minister, Barb Bakotich, who subsequently encouraged her to apply. 

“(Emily) showed so much passion for youth group,” Fleury said. “We saw how much she enjoyed talking about her faith and how she enjoyed being there for the other students and was willing to take charge and show up and be the person that was going to be positive.”

Bennett will be the first teen from St. John Vianney to join NET, Fleury said.

In most cases, NET Ministries teams travel the country giving retreats in different regions. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bennett’s experience will look a little different. Her team will spend the entirety of their mission in Los Angeles on a virtual retreat team. 

“We are following all of the state and local guidelines everywhere we go,” said David Rinaldi, NET’s program director. “Team members are wearing masks and socially distancing themselves. This year, we are minimizing the number of host families that they will be staying with, and they will be spending more time together in rectories, in convents or retreat centers.”

Bennett’s team will host virtual retreats, with the hope that as restrictions loosen, they can travel to nearby dioceses and host some in-person events. 

Bennett, though, who is bubbly, warm and outgoing, is unfazed by the limitations. She told Detroit Catholic she feels passionate about serving others and intends to study social work in college when she returns, working specifically with children. 

“I feel like (NET) is something God is calling me to do to grow in my relationship with Him before I go and pursue career goals,” Bennett said. “I will be working with middle schoolers and high schools, and that it is something that I think is going to be very helpful: learning how to deal with certain situations, how to talk to kids. I feel like that will be helpful to my career.”

Fleury believes Bennett has the charisma and character that will draw young people toward her. 

“She has a comfort level to her that she will be uniquely herself and not be apologetic for who she is as a person,” Fleury said. “Kids can see authentic; they know when we are lying to them. They know when we are not being ourselves, and with her, that is not going to be a problem.”

On top of being authentic and approachable, Bennett exudes Christ’s love everywhere she goes, Fleury added. 

“She loves everyone. I have never heard her speak a bad word about anyone, even when she has talked to me about people who have upset her,” Fleury said. “She is always trying to find the best positive outlook from that situation.”