Sold-Out Steubenville Atlanta Speaks To Teens
Published: August 4, 2005
ATLANTA—Thirty years after the first Steubenville Youth Conference, a new generation of high school age Catholics is packing into arenas—like the Gwinnett Civic Center July 22-24—to be immersed in a faith environment all its own where it is cool to fall more and more in love with God.
Jamming the Civic Center auditorium, over 1,800 teens were on their feet, singing praise to God through music led by Matt Maher at about 9 a.m. July 23 as they gathered for morning Mass celebrated by Father Tim Hepburn. This year’s conference theme was “Experience the Glory.”
The priest, who is campus chaplain at Emory University and Agnes Scott College, told them it was 20 years ago, as an Auburn University undergraduate, that he had a life-changing encounter with God—although he didn’t immediately know it.
“Twenty years ago this month, I experienced God’s glory and it changed me, and it’s continuing to change me forever,” he said.
Before that, he said, as he was progressing in his young adult life he was becoming “less secure … not more secure.” He felt “like a weak boy, not a man,” and he didn’t like the person he was becoming.
“One July day I became desperate to change, not just on the surface, but really change.” He got down on his knees and asked God to help him stop sinning, saying that he knew only God’s help could make that possible.
Although his first sense was that “absolutely nothing happened” after his heartfelt prayer, he tried to pray in the Holy Spirit as he was encouraged to do by a Christian evangelist he had heard.
“I went to bed that night and I woke up two times, and it was the first time a prayer came up in me from the center of my being. It set off in my life a revolution,” Father Hepburn said.
“The reason I’m telling you this story is because God is going to put something before you this weekend. It may be sitting down before a priest and telling him that one thing (that is troubling you). It may be thinking about the area in your life where you need to get counseling, and that’s okay. It may be raising your hands in prayer or it may be to stop doing that and get quiet.”
God “began rivers of living water in my life,” Father Hepburn said. “You will know it this weekend as you enter the glory of God.”
Colorful, whimsical, humorous T-shirts identified teens by their youth groups as they sat together from parishes from as far away as Wisconsin, Texas, and Minnesota, as well as from Florida, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia.
Steubenville Atlanta, which was hosted and sponsored by Life Teen, was one of 13 sold-out high school youth conferences held around the country this year, four on the campus of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. The first youth conference was held there in 1976. As the demand for the conferences grew, they began to be offered in additional locations around the country each summer with a shared theme and common corps of speakers and musicians. Steubenville Atlanta began in 1998.
In an atmosphere charged with youthful energy, driving and prayerful music by the Mesa, Ariz., Life Teen musicians, occasional strobe lights and projected images, a genuine reverence was evident everywhere. Where priests heard confessions, at least 60 people waited in line. At the sign of peace at Mass, young men were the first to step across the aisles and give strangers a warm hug. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, everyone knelt on the ground.
Asked why she came, 17-year-old Katie from Texas said simply, “to get closer to God.”
Kaitlyn Luzader, 14, from New Port Richey, Fla., said it was a new experience and she was enjoying it.
“You see other kids like you. You don’t have to worry about being judged,” she said, as streams of young people passed by, comfortable wearing crosses and T-shirts saying “It’s All God,” or “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow/ Live the Gospel/ Pray 24/7.”
“This is our fifth time,” said youth minister Marianne Doughney from Jupiter, Fla. “There are 45 in our group, and it’s awesome.”
She said the conference offers teens a unique place to grow spiritually and creates an atmosphere of prayerfulness where the highlight is eucharistic adoration. At the same time, the conference music “is a key attraction” and the youthful environment shows teens “that religion can be fun, God can be fun. There are good things that come out of it.”
Teens who come to Steubenville conferences leave closely bonded to one another, she said, and to the adults who are chaperones and youth ministers. “They make a connection here with one another. It passes which school you go to or whether you’re an athlete or not … It is a bonding experience … Even with the adults, they bond with us. They trust us. It doesn’t go away.”
Martha Gaynoe, one of the Steubenville Atlanta coordinators with Randy Raus, said the conference had to turn away 200 and cut back on the 100 or more adult volunteers to make room for more teens. The conferences strive to offer what the late Pope John Paul II envisioned and inaugurated through World Youth Day, she said.
“Learning how to evangelize to the present generation—that is what these conferences do,” she said. Through excellent music and through speakers offering “real life stories,” the teens hear about “how to live lives of holiness.” All the talks are about “making the sacraments relevant to their lives.”
“The church has to go to excellence in evangelism,” she said, a vision articulated by the pope through his devotion to youth and World Youth Day.
In addition to Father Hepburn, Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, from Steubenville celebrated Mass and spoke to the teens during the weekend.
In one of two morning sessions at Steubenville Atlanta, divided by gender, Michelle Benzinger, who works at the Covecrest Life Teen retreat center, spoke to young women about living chastely and prayed for those who have done so and for those who wanted to make that commitment anew.
“We have to fight for ourselves. We deserve the best. Please don’t settle for anything less than the best because you—each one of you—are worth waiting for,” Benzinger said.
Relating her own experience, the young mother of two said she once failed as a youth but then restored her commitment to chastity and sustained it until she married her husband at the age of 28.
“Was it hard? Yes,” she acknowledged, encouraging young women to memorize Scriptures and keep verses where they can readily find them, to have trusted spiritual friends for support, and to sign a chastity pledge card or wear a chastity ring or bracelet. She and her future husband helped one another by exchanging their chastity cards when they became engaged “so we knew it was up to us to protect each other’s chastity.” She added that now in their experience of the sacrament of marriage and their commitment to each other she and her husband “wish we had never even kissed someone else.”
“It is not obsolete. It is called commitment. The sacrament works. It is sacred, and it is true,” Benzinger said.
That afternoon, speaker Mark Hart, who reaches thousands through a Web-based Catholic Bible study, addressed both young men and women, calling them to pray for one another and to “keep the bar high” inspired by Jesus.
“It is easy to be courageous in this big room, but you know, like I know, when you go home, there will be temptation, there will be sin. We let that sin become slavery. We let it snowball. We have to cry out to God in supplication,” Hart said. “Peter said the devil is like a lion prowling around. Freedom will come through Jesus Christ, if you realize what those areas are and do something about it.”
He told women, “You are special, you are precious … you are loved … Have courage. You can single-handedly break yourself out of that cycle (of fear of loneliness and rejection) and make Jesus the love of your life.”
“Men,” he said, “these ladies can be your greatest allies in the world. Ask them to pray for you … Let them call you to holiness. Put on Christ. Get God’s life in you. How do you do that? First, the Eucharist you received this morning. Second, the word of God. You need to have courage.”
Acknowledging that it is a battle against sin, he said “glorify God in your body. Make it a living sacrifice. You are courageous.”
“There is no reason St. Katie of Atlanta won’t be invoked 200 years from now because of the life she lived,” he concluded.
During the lunch break, Mark Chappell, a volunteer chaperone with a group from Tullahoma, Tenn., watched with bemusement as thousands of teenagers thronged, sitting in groups on the floor, eating Chick-fil-a sandwiches, chips, cookies and beverages—a sea of various heights, ages, races, hairstyles and garb making a din of conversation.
“Every one of the young people is different. The Lord works with each one of them,” Chappell said with quiet care for them lighting up his face.
He said it was his fifth or sixth Steubenville conference, between five children of his own, including three teenagers, and his work as a parent volunteer.
“I think it’s right down to earth with young people. The music is attractive, but so is the openness of praise and worship. The talks they hear are very practical and real life. Speakers talk about their own lives and experiences—the good things and the bad things,” he said.
He touched on the common desire to give the rock of faith to all these young people growing up in what seems to be a very shaky time.
“The world is so perverse anymore. Something as solid and unchanging as our Savior’s love for us and care for us is something we want to show them,” Chappell said.