Transforming Neighborly, Spiritual Bonds: Teens Empowered in Interfaith Engagement

By Claire Hoffmeyer, Director of Youth Ministry at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wisconsin

Nine years of youth ministry boils down to one simple, humbling truth: teenagers teach and transform me. I consistently seek to alter their lives by sharing the Gospel message, developing catechetical programming and availing the lived wisdom I believe to possess, yet it’s the teens who challenge me, renew me.

Our community located west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin offers affluence, academia, and an array of faiths to accompany you whether you pray in a temple, synagogue, church, or mosque. I both work and pray at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish located on a busy corner intersection in the heart of our suburb. Less than two miles northeast, a friend of mine leads fellow Muslims in prayer at Masjid Al-Noor—a mosque of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, a new addition to our neighborhood.

Our parish welcomes these new neighbors in a myriad of ways. We opened our church hall prior to the mosque’s groundbreaking so that the community could engage in dialogue. Soon thereafter, Masjid Al-Noor leaders used the church hall to examine the blueprints of their worship space. Annually, we collaborate on a seasonal project at the local farmer’s market. In these ways, we recognize and celebrate our neighborly bonds.

Last April, our community expanded. I welcomed Jewish, Lutheran, Nondenominational Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Mormon, and Muslim teen representatives to our parish. This was not in an effort to evangelize or convert. Rather, this was a response to a request of our active interfaith community for more youth engagement and empowerment.

My mission was to offer space for interfaith teens to explore the graces of interfaith collaboration and dialogue. I sought to cultivate young leaders equipped with training in diversity particularly regarding religious views and practices because interfaith dialogue can give birth to mutual understanding, respect, and friendship of all people, no matter how or where you worship.

These youth delegates commune unlike any youth group. They treat each other with kindness and gentle curiosity about each other’s faith beliefs. They laugh with one another.  Every time we gather, roaring laughter fills the space. They like one another and are genuinely excited to just be in each other’s company. They captivate one another. They leave no room for division, intolerance, or cruelty. The differences they have, they embrace. Impressively, they exercise these behaviors effortlessly.

Youth, they teach you; they transform you.

Challenged by a most recent saint, we aim to “recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us, in order to preserve and promote together for the benefit of all men, ‘peace, liberty, social justice and moral values’ as the Council calls upon us to do.” This call by St. Pope John Paul II in an address to our Church in 1979, nearly forty years ago still holds true today, especially as we witness fear, injustice, violence, and hate toward our Muslim neighbors.

How can we combat the cruel attitudes and behaviors toward our Muslim brothers and sisters?

The youth delegates strive for peace and justice through unity. Two young ladies, one a member of St. John Vianney and the other a member of Masjid Al-Noor presented, “Gratitude Unites Us,” the youth delegates’ collaborative video project screened at last November’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service.

The ladies prepared an address, written and rehearsed extensively together, and called us to action. They commanded all to set aside our divisions and instead practice an attitude of gratitude. When grateful, we refuse to let our separateness distract, rule, or divide us. We recognize we share in one humanity in which we have much to be grateful.

Through their powerful contributions, our youth delegates unassumingly displayed transformation from division to unity. They know how to be good neighbors. They love others, their faith, and God fiercely—they find unity in this shared love and gratitude. Muslim, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, and Mormon teenagers have imparted this wisdom, this truth, upon my heart. I am forever transformed.

I invite you to consider extending a hand to your neighbors in faith. Look to your community’s teens—they’ll model for you just how to preserve and promote the spiritual bonds that unite us all. Enjoy your transformation!

Claire Hoffmeyer is Director of Youth Ministry at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wisconsin. In 2007, Claire graduated with a degree in Sociology, Justice and Peace Studies and Writing from Marquette University. Since then, through her work with youth and families at Saint John Vianney Claire has been exploring her vocation in ministry gaining practical wisdom in a faith that does justice.


Going Deeper!

St. John Vianney’s work was recently featured on WeAreSaltAndLight.org, which also includes resources and tools from USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

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