Continuing a trend of cooperation between Catholics and Evangelicals in Oregon, the Archdiocese of Portland and a prominent youth ministry will team up to reach young people who are alienated from their church.

Archbishop Alexander Sample and leaders from Young Life signed a memorandum of understanding Dec. 5, agreeing to help disaffected Catholic youths enter a relationship with Jesus and then get connected with Catholic parishes.   

“One priest told me, ‘Look, they’ve got something really good going and we don’t have diddly-squat in most places,’” Archbishop Sample said. “Let’s get on board and take advantage of a program that really works very well.”

Young Life began in Texas in 1941 and now is based in Colorado. Staffed mostly by Evangelicals but including Catholics, it has thousands of volunteers and runs clubs and camps nationwide.

A committee of local youth ministers guided formation of the agreement.

The Archdiocese of Portland is the third Catholic see to sign a memorandum of understanding with Young Life. The Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, entered a similar agreement in 2015 and the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, followed last year. 

Praising the Protestant emphasis on forming a personal relationship with Jesus, Archbishop Sample said Catholics, too, need to know their faith is not about doctrine, but about a person — the Son of God.

“We know so many of these kids are lost,” the archbishop said, describing sad-looking pedestrians he observes in downtown Portland. “They are struggling. They don’t know who they are. They don’t know their dignity as sons and daughters of a God who created them in his own image and likeness.”

The archbishop admitted that some of his priests had reservations, fearing that Young Life would poach Catholic youths. The archbishop said such fears are unfounded, adding that Christian believers must work together in the unchurched Pacific Northwest. The memorandum says that Catholic officials will explain church teaching to Young Life leaders, who in turn agree to respect the beliefs.

Jason Kidd, director of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Portland, said many Catholic youths are becoming involved in Young Life already. Kidd explained that the non-denominational ministry is offering a bridge back to Catholic parishes.

“They want people to grow where they are planted,” Kidd said. “It’s a great opportunity for ecumenism. Here is a step to work together for the Kingdom of God.”

The Oregon agreement has its roots in the town of Lake Oswego, where the Catholic youth minister and a Young Life director became friends and decided to work together to reach youths at local high schools.

“They caught the vision that in order to reach the unchurched and the disconnected kids, we need to work together, we can’t wait,” said Sherri Nee, a Young Life official in the Portland area.

Nee reported that many Young Life counselors do not know how to speak to young Catholics who are showing up at camps and clubs. The agreement, Nee said, will help Young Life learn the depth of Catholic faith and in turn help Catholic youth ministers discover effective ways to evangelize their teens.

Amanda Jewett, a youth minister St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, is embracing Young Life already. Last year, she attended one of the group’s camps at a ranch in the north Oregon town of Antelope. Jewett observed how God-talk was sparse early on, but increased slowly until teens were comfortable talking about their bond with Jesus.  

Jewett learned from Young Life staff that youth ministers must get out to football games, musicals and robotics tournaments to engage youths instead of waiting at the parish for them to show up.

In the south Texas partnership begun two years ago, Young Life has not sought to replace Catholicism but has helped young Catholics reconnect with their faith, said Eddie Hernandez, a pastoral associate for the Brownsville Diocese.

In the course of a year, Hernandez saw a Young Life club at one high school flourish with Catholics, increasing from a half dozen to about 100 teens.

Reyna Conde leads that club at San Benito High School in San Benito, Texas. Meetings start with each youth getting a high five before the start of songs, games, prayer and testimony. Conde ends by inviting teens to attend Mass with her over the weekend, which many do. She also helps them get linked with parish youth groups.

“I really like the fact that they go out into these schools and touch the lives of Catholic kids we might never see in a Mass,” Hernandez said. “If they did come to Mass before, they would have been turned off because they didn’t understand the Mass. There was not yet a connection with the heart.”

Hernandez has begun a two-year internship with Young Life, learning the process so he can teach it to Catholic pastors and parish staffs.  

Wayne Patterson, a Wilsonville-based Young Life leader who grew up Catholic, said the Oregon partnership has similar potential.

 “I was that lad walking through life in darkness,” Patterson said, explaining that a Young Life leader started a friendship with him and saved him from going down the wrong path. Patterson said the effort will be worth it “if there is one young man or woman we could keep from experiencing what I did.”

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