Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 30, 2000
Youth faith explosion
Organizer says annual rally a sign of growing youth ministry
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
The annual Edmonton Archdiocese Youth Rally may have reached a plateau in terms of participants, but the explosion of faith in the youth has only begun.
"Oh, it's still growing," said Odile Wilson, who founded the event seven years ago. "I think it's an exciting time for youth ministry."
The numbers for this year's rally, held Oct. 21 at Archbishop O'Leary High School, were down, about 100 less than last year. But the almost 700 youth who attended this year are definitely not a sign of dwindling interest, said Wilson.
"I think we've hit our max. We don't really want it any bigger than this. A thousand might be too big. We lose something with having it bigger."
Wilson places a great importance in youth ministry and events.
"We focus so much on other ministries. The (adults and elders) are well looked after in the churches. The elders have been there for awhile, they're not going anywhere. If we don't focus on our youth, they may not be there tomorrow. Where will our Church be then?
"We have to let the parishes know that it's OK to have a youth ministry. If we focus in on the youth ministry, everything else will look after itself."
Youth ministry will evolve into other ministries in the parish, said Wilson, because the young people will take over various ministries as they get older.
"We have to get them excited about ministry now so they can carry on - continue to be involved. It builds up."
It wasn't hard to get the teens excited during the rally. The event was far from being a quiet retreat or a prayer gathering.
"It's a rally," said Denise Wilson, the event's master of ceremonies. "I liken it to a pep rally. We want them to get excited about God. It's a great gathering for kids to have this non-threatening place where they can get excited about their faith.
"We want them to go back and get their parish on fire. We want them to bring the same excitement to their friends and family."
The inspiration for this year's rally came in the words and feet of Tony Melendez.
Melendez, a 38-year-old musician from Texas, entertained the youngsters with songs of faith in English and Spanish. He sang and played the guitar . . . with his toes. Many of the youngsters sat quietly, some mesmerized at the quickness of Melendez's toes, the ones on the right foot strumming, while the ones on the left foot slide effortlessly along the frets.
"If a person like me can do this with 10 toes, imagine what you can do with 10 toes, 10 fingers and God," said Melendez.
The organizers of the rally booked Melendez two years ago, but his heavy touring schedule kept him away until this year.
Born in Nicaragua without arms and with a club foot after his mother was prescribed Thalidomide for morning sickness during her pregnancy, Melendez made headlines 13 years ago when Pope John Paul leapt out of his seat and came over to kiss him after a performance.
Melendez's performance for the Holy Father during his 1987 visit to Los Angeles was a gift from the youth of the diocese. The papal kiss launched a music career for Melendez who prior to that had played for small church audiences and spare change at the beach.
"He is a real witness to faith," said Odile Wilson.
Not having arms has not deterred Melendez from living a full life. He wanted to become a priest, but was turned down because he could not celebrate Mass without a thumb and index finger.
He was hurt, but later discovered he could do his ministry in another form, music. He is married with two small children. He drives, diapers his young son and signs autographs with his feet. And he makes it clear to everyone that he's happy to be alive, performing his music and to be a guy who has learned to do just about everything with his feet.
Laughter and chuckles filled the gymnasium often during the rally. Not only did Melendez connect with the young people, he inspired them.
Taking the theme of this year's rally, Leaders Follow, Melendez challenged the youth "to be leaders . . . to follow not others, but Christ."
His brother Jose, also had his own challenge for the youth.
"It's easy to do what you were doing here," said Jose, who travels with his brother as a sound technician and manager. "But you have to carry this in your life - to your school, your family."
Jose was not always appreciative of his brother's disability. As a young boy he remembers being teased for having an armless brother. He remembers asking his mother why he couldn't have "a normal brother instead."
The first time his brother threw a frisbee with his foot, it hit Jose on the bridge of his nose. Jose realized then his brother was hardly disabled.
"You and I are more handicapped than this guy," Jose said. "We'll always say I can't, I give up, I won't."
But Tony was never an "I can't" person, he is one who models that the "impossible is possible.
"You're young, you can do anything. And with God, the sky's the limit."
Like the Wilsons, the Melendez also place a great emphasis on the youth of the Church. They try to reach out to the ones who have strayed or inspire the ones who can in turn ignite the faith in their own parents who may have wandered away from the Church.
At the rally, the Grades 7 to 12 students alternated from listening to Melendez in the gymnasium to small group discussions in classrooms.
The Jesus Freaks organized a short David Letterman style skit, where the show host interviews Jesus, which they performed for the group after dinner.
Tammy Turton, one of the Jesus Freaks, said the rally is a place for "so many people are spread out, but all have a common ground. Stuff like this brings out your faith."
"This is the toughest time for us," said Turton, a youth leader in Spruce Grove. "We're subject to influence at this age - to what society says, to drugs, sex.
"It's good to be able to be influenced by your faith."
Brienne Borle, 17, shared the same sentiment. The parishioner of St. Mary's Church in Red Deer was up at 4:45 a.m. to make the hour and a half drive with about 30 members of her youth group.
"It's a really loving and accepting environment," she said. "You can talk to whoever about whatever. It's not always easy to talk about God and about what you believe in."