How a dinner disaster became an unexpected lesson on the value of Christian community
It looked like frozen shredded cheese, and it felt like frozen shredded cheese.
My fellow youth group leaders sprinkled it on those pizzas and happily slid them into the parish ovens to bake while the middle- and high-schoolers went through their opening games and prayer. Only when the games were almost over and dinner was soon upon us did we remark how it seemed like the cheese was taking an awfully long time to melt.
Dread as the reason dawned on us: We had topped all those pizzas with frozen shredded potatoes, the kind you might use for hash browns (another staple in a parish kitchen). Nothing like laughter laced with a bit of panic! Hungry, expectant teens lined up to find their adult leaders cheerily declaring that tonight we had a new delicacy, “breakfast pizza”!
And we all ate it, laughed about it and promised never to do it again. And we all now share the story of the Night of the Attack of the Breakfast Pizzas.
I observed the reaction of our whole group that night with a grateful heart. Had this happened at the start of our youth group year, when we didn’t know each other very well, we may have felt more embarrassment, panic or stress. Being in the spring, the youth and adults alike met the challenge with a large dose of humor, trust and basic goodwill … and strong stomachs.
We were in it together. Breakfast pizza night has become a shared story, a funny collective memory and an occasion to build our sense of community. Those ties of relationship created the environment of “pulling together” and enjoying a crazy dinner instead of self-consciousness and separation.
Our teens have plenty of moments of feeling separate. They keenly long to belong. As a school counselor, a youth group volunteer and a Salesian Cooperator, I’ve seen a range of curriculums, initiatives and structures for youth programs that teach many good things. But nothing teaches the love of God like being known and chosen by people who truly have your best good at heart.
Yes, we must be diligent to teach our young people the beauty of our faith and the principles of good character and right action, and our youth learn best when we teach within a community where they feel connected and cared for.
The great psychosocial development theorist Erik Erikson proposed that adolescents’ main developmental task is to integrate an understanding of their fundamental identity. Teens look to their environments to help form their sense of self, character, morality and decision-making, and much of this formation is accomplished through the groups with whom they identify.
When teens truly connect to a parish youth program, they become part of something meaningful. They are known. They are seen. They are important. Their sense of belonging fosters a peaceful heart that can more fully respond to the Gospel. Within that community then, their hearts hear the Word of God — through teaching, and also through each other.
We believe Jesus at his word: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) It can be so difficult to prioritize youth group meetings when homework, sports and jobs loudly demand that time. But our youth need God and need their identity to be formed by community, so they should be encouraged to commit to youth programs where they can discover that they truly belong to the church and to God.
Susan Essex is a member of Holy Innocents Parish in Duvall.
Let your Catholic voice be heard
Northwest Catholic - July/August 2017