A large contingent of high school students was nestled in formation inside the emerald green gymnasium at Msgr. King Hall at the St. Thomas Aquinas Sports center on a Friday night in April. But instead of perfecting plays that are the norm inside the Flatlands gym that’s home to CYO basketball tournaments throughout the year, the teens were Catholic “ambassadors” trying to perfect the salsa dance.
It was the eve before a fundraising gala dinner for the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns’ Youth Leadership Ambassador Program (VBCC), and the young leaders were learning how to sway their hips at the precise moment to the rhythm of the beat without stepping on their two feet.
The next day, they were going to perform in front of a packed gym to celebrate the VBCC’s 10-year anniversary and to try to impress potential donors for their mission trip to Puerto Rico, which is scheduled for July 1-7.
Young Catholic Leaders
The young Catholic leaders will spend a week volunteering in Aibonito, a small mountain region in the Diocese of Caguas in the southern part of Puerto Rico.
Each morning during the week, they will attend Mass and then go on a service project wherever they are needed, performing such tasks as cleaning an orphanage and rebuilding a chapel. At the end of each day, they will reflect as a group.
The VBCC consists of high school students from the Diocese of Brooklyn who were chosen as “ambassadors,” or youth leaders. Each member was nominated by his or her pastor and was then interviewed before being accepted.
Thirty-five members of the group will go to Puerto Rico. Each had to raise more than $1,100.
Back at Msgr. King gym, Lorenzo Boland, a three-year ambassador and recent St. Edmund Prep, Sheepshead Bay graduate, reflected on his motivation for going to Puerto Rico.
Bringing Faith to Puerto Rico
“I’m looking to get a better experience through my faith,” Boland said, “help out people who really need it, maybe bring them closer to their faith. In school, I’m involved in the Emmaus program that is a retreat program to help young men get closer to their faith. So I’m going to try and bring some of that and a little help to the Puerto Rico community.”
Father Dwayne Davis, the mission trip leader and one of the group’s chaperones, watched the teens practice the salsa dance in the gym.
“Ten years ago, I approached Bishop [Guy] Sansaricq and asked him to start a leadership program for the young people within the black community, and so they said go ahead and we started the youth leadership ambassador program,” Father Davis said, referring to the now-retired auxiliary bishop of the diocese.
“Preparing young people for college, for the workforce, preparing them to be leaders in the church in different leadership roles,” Father Davis, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas, Flatlands, said of VBCC’s goals.
Each month, the teen leaders meet to participate in leadership, entrepreneurship and college-prep programs. They also serve as ushers at Masses, as altar servers and as lectors in between schoolwork and extracurricular activities.
Now, they are set to travel to Puerto Rico.
“I think the most important thing that’s going to happen is not necessarily the work that gets done, but being in solidarity with the people that they encounter,” said Marilyn Santos, who works in the area of youth catechesis and evangelization for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and who will be accompanying the teens on the trip.
“Because we’re going to encounter them and we’re going to accompany them during the week. And what I’m hoping is that accompaniment continues even after we leave. Something as simple as prayer,” Santos said.
Santos has been working with Father Davis and with the Pope Francis’ mission organization, the Pontifical Mission Societies in Puerto Rico, to make sure the youth ambassadors will meet those they encounter as equals, instead of having a “savior” mentality.
“We’re here because we haven’t forgotten you,” she added, “we’re here because you’re my brother and sister in Christ and that’s really why we’re there. We’re not going with the savior mentality, that we’re coming from the U.S.; no, we’re not going to save anybody. That shouldn’t be the focus of what we’re going to do, but to encounter and be in solidarity.”
Colsen Compere, one of the teens going on the trip, said he struggled to sell tickets to the fundraising gala. Nonetheless, with the help of the other leaders, volunteers and Father Davis, he said he feels prepared and he has one thing on his mind.
“When I get to Puerto Rico, I want to make people smile,” he said.