Inaugural conference for young people reminds attendees of God's purpose and love in their lives, even in the midst of struggles
FARMINGTON HILLS — LeAnne Johnson, like many teenagers, has been dealing with a lot these days.
Remote learning and isolation from friends, a constant stream of negative news on social media, and worry over the pandemic have burdened young people for nearly two years. But Johnson, a senior at Oxford High School, which suffered a mass shooting on Nov. 30, 2021, has been handed more than her fair share.
She's experienced trauma in her life — even apart from the shooting — but nevertheless brings her faith with her wherever she goes.
“I have tried to talk to my friends, bringing light to the situation (at Oxford), saying there is a light at the end of the tunnel," said Johnson, a parishioner at St. Joseph in Lake Orion. "God has a plan for us; there is a reason we are going through this. I have been heavily involved with my youth group, and I have tried to bring other people to youth group.
"We have God looking down on us, and that's going to help us get through the hard times,” Johnson told Detroit Catholic.
Getting through the hard times was the theme of the day Sunday, Feb. 6, when teens from across the Archdiocese of Detroit gathered at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills for the first-ever RISE! conference, a day of talks, worship, fellowship, Mass and community, all focused on a key message from Scripture: “I have called you by name and you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
While not every attendee was dealing with something as heavy as a school shooting, many teens said the message of the day resonated with them. Overburdened and overexposed in an age of stress, teens appreciated the opportunity to reset and be reminded of who they are as God's children — that He has called them by name, and their existence is no accident.
“This is beautiful when we all can come together in the Archdiocese of Detroit and worship together and learn together," said Sharon Ward, a junior at Cardinal Mooney High School in Marine City. "I just love this so much.”
Thanks to Mercy’s size, the conference was able to accommodate 47 different parishes and schools and approximately 450 teens and their chaperones, all socially distanced and masked.
The conference, which archdiocesan organizers hope will be an annual event, originally was slated to launch in April 2020, but was put on hold because of the pandemic. Thanks to an army of volunteers, this year's event was able to take place with safety protocols in place, said Laura Piccone-Hanchon, youth ministry coordinator for the archdiocese.
Throughout the day, teens listened to talks from Deacon Bob Rice, Ph.D., a father of seven and professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, as well as Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda, Fr. Patrick Gonyeau, and small groups led by The Culture Project, an initiative of young people to restore culture by proclaiming the dignity of the human person.
Deacon Rice led the day with humor, introducing himself through song while playing the guitar, before driving home the message to teens that they were not an accident; God created each person on purpose and with a plan in mind.
“All of us have been called by name, and He has plans for every single one of us,” Deacon Rice said. “It is really just amazing how much God loves us. He made you, fearfully and wonderfully. You are the only you that God ever actually made.”
Saying "yes" to God and pursuing holiness starts by embracing the fact that one is made uniquely in God’s image and likeness, Deacon Rice explained.
“Our sin makes us look like everyone else," Deacon Rice said. "Sin really isn’t very interesting, in fact, when you really boil down to it; there are only 10 commandments to break. There are really only 10 ways to sin, but there are thousands of ways to be holy — thousands of ways to say 'yes' to God.”
One way of allowing kids a chance to do that is to give them opportunities like RISE!, said Yvonne Graves-Hill, a volunteer on the conference planning committee.
Kids are experiencing so much isolation these days they have fewer opportunities to grow in their faith, Graves-Hill said.
“Because they are seeing fewer kids who share their faith with them, they are having fewer opportunities to practice their faith,” Graves-Hill said. “Our Church, as a body, does not tap into the domestic church as much as it should or could.”
These opportunities to strengthen their faith are more important than ever, said Julie Wieleba-Milkie, who works with teens at Sacred Heart Parish in Dearborn and has served in youth ministry for 25 years. Through adversity, teens can discover who they are in Christ and find opportunities to call upon him and trust him, Wieleba-Milkie explained.
“Society might sell the message that it's all about me, and our faith life is trying to tell us that we are part of a relationship with God,” Wieleba-Milkie said. “If our teens face struggles, their faith can say that sometimes there is a value to struggle.”
It's a message that teens like Johnson, the Oxford shooting survivor, needed to hear.
"(The idea) that you were made for God — it was not an accident, you have a purpose — really resonates with everything going on in today’s society,” Johnson said. “There are so many bad things that happen, and if they happen to you, there is a purpose to that; you are put in situations, and you are made perfectly by God. God has a plan for you.”
For others in attendance, the message seemed to be getting through.
“I just like how the theme of it is that God loves you," said Tim Naldony, a high school senior and parishioner at St. Joseph Parish in Erie. "He loves us, but particularly you — He loves me. It is a great reminder of God’s love and mercy for me. It shows me ways I can be a better person and how I can be closer to God and His love.”