PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Nearly two weeks after youths from two parishes in the Diocese of Brooklyn returned from the National Catholic Youth Conference in Long Beach, Calif., the excitement they felt from the experience had not worn off.
The dozen attendees had traveled from the Brooklyn parishes of Mary of Nazareth and St. Thomas Aquinas to participate in the Nov. 10-12 event, titled “Walking on Water.” They came home inspired to seek greatness, despite their own limitations.
“Altogether the NCYC Conference was an astonishing experience,” said Jonah Jones of St. Thomas Aquinas. “Some key takeaways that I got from this conference is that we are not alone, and that God is always present in our life, even when it seems like He is not. But, if you put your trust in God, you will be worry-free.”
The NCYC began in 1983 with sessions on the East and West Coasts to lead young Catholics into renewed reliance on their faith to deal with whatever challenges their generations faced. These regional conferences typically drew a few thousand attendees.
But in 1991, NCYC the regionals merged into a national conference, usually held in Indianapolis, Indiana. The conference now attracts over 20,000 youth and adults for three days of worship, music, and fun.
This year’s return to the West Coast was a scaled-down version of the conference, with only about 2,600 people attending. Still, the Brooklyn delegation was no less enthralled by the teachings, entertainment, and worship.
The “Walking on Water” theme was inspired by the story of Jesus calling Peter to leave his boat and join him walking on the water (Matthew, 14:29).
Attendees learned they don’t have to stay mired in faith weakened by the pandemic and economic woes. The conference, according to organizers, was an invitation to step out in faith and trust God.
Several speakers showed them how, especially Jessica Cox.
A native of Arizona, Cox was born without arms, yet learned to pilot airplanes with her feet — the first ever in the world to do so.
Cox demonstrated how she ties shoelaces with her toes. She adds just the right amount of looseness to slip her feet into the shoes, but not too loose that she slips out of them. The presentation is posted on the NCYC Facebook page.
“This very task of tying my shoelaces was just a representation of how I accomplished things in my life,” Cox told her audience. “You see, I didn’t learn how to tie my shoelaces. I learned how to think outside the shoe.
“That is what helped me through life without arms — being creative, coming up with a solution, not giving up, being persistent, (and) having the perseverance to get back up when we fall down.
“Through God’s help, we can accomplish all incredible things,” she added. “And at the end of a long, hard trial, it makes us even stronger. It makes us even more empowered.”
Kadeem Roache of St. Thomas Aquinas said he was impressed with part of the speaker’s message that declared, “God makes us unique to bless others around us.”
“We need to surrender our challenges to God, and he will come to our rescue,” Roache said. “Bring it all to the table, because there’s nothing he can’t handle.”
Jaime Rodriquez from Mary of Nazareth said the message “showed me how being different is okay.”
“Even though (some people) are not ‘normal,’ they are normal to God,” she said. “I saw that I — as a young person of the Lord — can still impact others in my church and community.”
Fathers Henry Torres and Dwayne Davis, respectively, are pastors of Mary of Nazareth and St. Thomas Aquinas parishes. They accompanied the local attendees to the event in Long Beach.
Father Torres said he appreciated a story Cox shared about how a man saw her pumping gas into a car with her feet, and was moved to tell her his daughter was depressed because she had lost some fingers, but Cox proved disabilities are conquerable.
Cox added that exchanges like that make her content that she has no arms, Father Torres said.
“She gave a beautiful witness,” he said.
The attendees also participated in discussions that reinforced the Christian principle that every person is precious, regardless of race or other factors.
“We’re called to love each other,” Father Davis said. “They’re very intrigued by that. Which brings us back to human dignity. Everybody has human dignity.”
Father Davis said the cross-country journey to California also showed the Brooklyn group how other Catholic youth live their faith.
“One of the things that Father Henry and I really wanted for them was to see that the Church is bigger than just our own parish community,” he said.
“My experience at NCYC was something magical — something I have never experienced or seen,” said Jocelyn Esther Navarro Rijo from Mary of Nazareth. “I would 100% do it again. I feel as if the Lord has touched me more and welcomed me more as a child of God.”