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Reaching Families, Pastor and Priest

In Boston, inner-city teens find hope in the Church

  • Christine Williams, OSV Newsweekly
  • |
  • May 29 2015
Blog
Christine M. Williams

Dozens of youth, including 48 scheduled to be confirmed June 6, find community, healing, Christ

When Marcos Enrique first speaks with the inner-city teenagers who show up for sacramental preparation, he assumes nothing. He does not expect that they attend Mass or even that they believe in God. In fact, for the first month of the program, he does not talk about God at all.

On the first day, he tells the kids, “The truth is that, no, you don’t believe in God, and it’s OK.”

He said that the suffering he sees in the lives of these teens is difficult to reconcile with a loving, all-powerful God. Over the course of the first weeks, he sets the stage to show them that despite their brokenness, God is with them.

Enrique is the admissions director for Cristo Rey Boston High School. Through his work, he meets many young people who had never received the sacraments — some have never even been baptized. In order to minister to them, he started the Teen Christian Initiation Program at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain in 2012. The first year, 49 14- to 18-year-olds completed the program. The following year, there were 43, and on June 6, another 48 teens from inner-city Boston were set to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Lives changed

The youth come from all over Boston. They tend to live in poorer neighborhoods and come from broken homes. Most have families who do not attend religious services at all. Some have been abused. Many have been affected by death of a friend or relative. They may have known someone who was murdered — sometimes because that person was a gang member.

“They have all this trash inside of them,” Enrique said. He tells them that despite the mess in their lives and their mistakes, God still loves them. That message can make a strong impact.

One of the teens who went through the program the first year, Rafael Resto, was a drug user and dealer. It was Enrique’s personal invitation to Resto, then 15, that brought him in, and it was confession that brought him out of the marijuana business. He walked in to the confessional with weed in his pocket, and after he walked out, he never took or sold drugs again.

Resto attends Cristo Rey and said that he expects that without the program, he would have dropped out of high school and might be in jail.

“I didn’t care if I lived to see the next day or if I got locked up,” he said. “I had nothing to lose.”

He said Enrique helped him to realize that there is a better way to live. He now aspires to be a Boston police officer.

Hunger for God

Many of the youth make a significant sacrifice to attend these meetings. They use public transportation to get there after school and then home afterward. One girl had to take the train and two buses to get home from the meetings every Wednesday night.

“I would have never done that,” Enrique volunteered, adding that when he was young, his Catholic parents drove him to church and “nagged” him to go. “For these kids, it’s already a miracle that they’re coming on the train or on the bus when it’s snowing, when it’s raining, when their parents are telling them not to go.”

He said the youth have a hunger for God.

Ariela Reynoso, 20, said she had a desire to grow closer to God for many years but did not know where to start. Enrique told her about his new program, and she was the first youth to ever sign up for it.

“It was the best experience for me. It changed me to be a better person,” she said. “I knew why I was doing it. I wanted to be closer to God. I wanted a better life for myself.”

Reynoso was born in the Dominican Republic but moved to the United States before her first birthday. For many of the students, Spanish is their first language. It’s Enrique’s first language too; he was born in Spain and moved to East Boston when he was 12.

“The power of the Good News is the only thing that can really take these kids out of that darkness.”

— Father Carlos Flor

Seeing God at work

As Enrique greets the students at the May 6 meeting, their conversations are peppered with Spanish phrases. He jokes around with them, and they give each other a hard time. It is clear that Enrique has built a rapport with these young people and that they respect him. But keeping them focused on the topic at-hand is often a challenge. Enrique has some of the students put away the chairs in the back so that they will not be tempted to sit in them and talk to each other. While taking attendance, he tells them, “Get all of that texting out of your system while I’m doing this.” It is a bit of controlled chaos.

He talks about the biblical story of Joseph, sold by his jealous brothers, and how he realized later in life that even though many things had been unfair, God had always been with him.

“This is faith,” Enrique said. “Faith is to be able to see God in my life.”

Before sending them off to small group discussions, he asks them a series of questions to ponder: What event in your life does the devil use to convince you that God is not love? Do you truly believe that God loves you just the way you are? Do you love people the way they are instead of the way you wish they were?

Like family

Teens who have completed the program report that they enjoyed an environment where they could talk about whatever they needed to without being judged. They also say that the community there becomes like a family.

Ivan Mota, 16, a student at Cristo Rey, said, “I met people here who have pushed me through things I will never forget.”

While preparing to receive the sacraments, Mota’s aunt and grandmother both passed away. She said she had trouble talking about that with her close friends, but found support at meetings. She said of the program’s current members, “They won’t realize what they had here can’t be had anywhere else.”

Father Carlos Flor, pastor at a collaborative of three parishes in or near Jamaica Plain — Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Mary of the Angels and St. Thomas — said he has seen a lot of progress in many of the teens.

For many who come into the program, their goals in life are to make money, find a career and find someone who loves them. They want something that is fruitful today, something tangible. He said it is not easy to instill in them values that will last.

“The power of the Good News is the only thing that can really take these kids out of that darkness,” he said. “We know that some of them are very, very, very helped.”

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