Meeting Youth “Where They’re At” (Guest post by Margaret Felice)

Margaret Felice is the feistiest Bostonian religion teacher/opera singer I know. Granted, I haven’t met any others, but I can’t imagine any would top her. Her reflections on faith combine theological reflection with poetic vision and always challenge me to think deeply about my relationship with God. I’m grateful for this guest post she has offered.

BostonMuseumNot long ago I had the pleasure of accompanying fifteen eighth-grade boys to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. As a religion teacher in the middle school division of a Jesuit high school, I spend a lot of my days talking about sports and Pop-Tart flavors, but I also spend my days exploring faith and the world alongside my students.

On this particular field trip day my advisory group really shone. I swelled up with pride when they explained to the docent some of the episcopal imagery in a portrait of an early American bishop. I knew that would be hard to top, but they made me prouder when we got to modern art. With each painting – some of shapes, some bright swaths of color – they explained not only what they saw, but what they thought it might mean.

There was one dark, apocalyptic scene, deep reds and oranges with black. There was a mound-like shape in the middle of the scene: was it a cave or a mountain? Was it a black hole? The kids sensed the terror of the landscape. One described a big oven, and the words “frightening” and “end of the world” were thrown around.

Then one student announced “I see a loaf of bread.” For a split second, I did too. You see, we were way overdue on lunch. And who’s to say that that painter hadn’t been hungry too?

There is a lot of pressure in religious education to “meet students ‘where they are at'”, whatever that means. I have seen enough well-intentioned catechists rhapsodize ineffectively about the joys of Marian devotion to know that there is some truth to that idea. We have to know our audiences, but I worry that we often slip into “lowest common denominator” catechesis and formation, assuming that students know nothing and have no interpretive skills.

On the anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birthday I wrote his famous “Lord God, I have no idea where I am going” prayer on the whiteboard in the classroom. I asked my group of 12-year-olds to read it over and write on a sheet of looseleaf what they thought the author was trying to get across. A few minutes later when we shared what we had written, I heard a series of heartfelt prayers that clearly represented what was going on in the student’s lives as much as what they read into Merton’s reflection. Who would have guessed that a 20th-century Trappist monk would be ‘where they were at’?

There is no way of knowing where students are at. I try to keep up on March Madness and Gatorade flavors in order to join their daily conversations, but most of the time where they are at encompasses much more than the trends that creep into their every day chatter. Where they are at may be their mother’s illness, or parents’ divorce, or tests for a learning disability. Young people have interior lives. Any effort to “meet them where they are at” needs to take that into account.

No matter how hard I try, I can’t “make the Gospel relevant” – another big temptation with youth work. I can’t improve on the Gospel, which has been making itself relevant throughout history, in times much more challenging than ours. What I learned with the Merton prayer, and with the MFA painting, was that if I can expose my students to something inspired, they will see what they need to see.

So I’m done with the isolationist mentality that insists making the Gospel “cool” is the only way to work with youth. To do that is to sell it – and ourselves – short. The good news of Jesus Christ is transformative and sublime, not cool. When we assume the worst of those to whom we minister, of any age, we deny the Gospel’s transformative power. We do this by assuming only our manipulation or dilution of the message will hold anyone’s interest, and we do this by believing that to hold someone’s interest is the same as encouraging their spiritual development.

I don’t advocate dropping the Bible on a teenager’s desk and walking away. Those of us charged with forming young people – parents and teachers alike – can guide them toward a certain passage, ask the right questions, tell a related story or give historical background. We can create a time and space for silence and prayer, we can introduce them to counter-cultural role models who will inspire them (and who will hold their attention).

In the end, it is the young people themselves who will bring it all up-to-date. They are the only ones who know where they are at. They will see what they need to see if we put holiness and beauty in front of them, then get out of the way and allow them to explore it. Sometimes they will see consolation, sometimes they will see their vocation, sometimes they will see a loaf of bread. That’s fine, as long as they learn to keep looking, to see beyond “where they’re at” and be drawn into where they could be.

Margaret Felice is a religion teacher, opera singer, choral conductor and loud-laugher who blogs from Boston at