WINDSOR TERRACE — Joseph Baah, 17, became uneasy last spring when the isolation of the COVID-19 quarantine took hold.
He missed his classmates and friends from church. His mind wandered, but his thoughts did not bring peace.
“The quarantine gave me more time to reflect,” Baah said. “What I figured out was I didn’t have a sense of identity. I didn’t realize that until everything just slowed down.
“Then, I realized that I felt lost.”
Baah was not alone in how he felt, said Elaine Tontoh, youth ministry director at St. Therese of Lisieux Roman Catholic Church, Flatbush.
“When the pandemic started, we immediately switched to having online meetings,” Tontoh said. “But the feedback we got from the youth was that they were feeling lonely, bored with nothing to do.”
Some grieved the losses of friends or family members to the pandemic, Tontoh said. Others missed their parents, who worked extra hours as first responders and hospital staff to save COVID-19 victims.
As spring turned to summer, other youth members became anxious about unemployment in their neighborhoods, racism, protests, and violence.
“During our meetings, we felt these young people needed something more,” Tontoh said. “So we, the youth ministry team, sat down, and we came up with this idea — a multifaceted program.”
The Virtual Youth Empowerment and Endurance Speakers Series was held via Zoom each Saturday from June 13 through Aug. 22.
Its theme was the Bible verse Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who gives me strength.”
“The goal of this initiative,” Tontoh explained, “was to equip our youth with the ‘tools’ they needed to overcome such adversity.
“For every Saturday during this event, we engaged our youth in prayer, praise, and worship, and had speakers present to the youth on various topics.”
The ministry team enlisted speakers who selected their topics reflecting the theme. For example, Dr. Mona Quarless discussed “Juneteenth,” Liba Quarless presented “Feelings, Thoughts, & Emotions,” and Pauline Melchoir-Morris gave stress management advice.
Some speakers “Zoomed” in from other countries, like Father Samuel Filton-Mensah. He spoke on “Fortitude” and “Determination” on two Saturdays from the Archdiocese of Accra in Ghana, West Africa.
Father Trevor Nathasingh from Laventille, Trinidad, had a full discussion on Philippians 4:13.
The speaker series started small, with about 15 kids from St. Therese of Lisieux, each appearing on screen from their homes, Tontoh said. Everyone could see each other, plus the speaker.
Some hiccups emerged because the kids had no experience in virtual meeting platforms like Zoom. For example, Tontoh said, some joined the meetings without the video function, which prevented youth leaders from observing their participation levels.
“We encouraged them to join in (with video),” Tontoh said. “Some of them were just shy, or they said, ‘Oh, my room is a mess, I don’t want people to see what’s in my room.’ So we told them, ‘Well, next time clean your room first!’ It’s important because it was hard to engage them without seeing them visually.”
Also, the leaders needed to know if anyone was with the participants during the programs. Leaders were happy to see parents or grandparents in the background, Tontoh said.
Word got out about the program, and kids from other parishes joined the meetings.
“To the glory of God, our event attracted youth from a number of neighboring parishes,” Tontoh said. “The number of attendees rose from 15 participants at the beginning to about 50 in July and August.”
Participants, ages 11-18, also came from St. Francis of Assisi-St. Blaise, St. Teresa of Avila, Crown Heights; St. Thomas Aquinas, Flatlands; St. Jerome, Flatbush; and St. Joseph the Worker.
Baah attends St. Catherine of Genoa with his family. He said the program’s speakers taught him that adversity, like a global pandemic, can spur growth, which, in turn, can build character.
To that end, Baah said, the speakers taught him “to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
“They spoke about God,” he explained, “and if you address adversity in prayer, you can find your purpose. So I started praying. Then I started noticing more.”
He said, “There’s no growth in your comfort zone.”
The program, he explained, “made me realize that throughout my whole life, I was doing things to make other people happy.”
“But,” Baah added, “I learned that everything I do should be because God called me to do so. Now I’m on a journey to finding out who I really am.”
Baah said he no longer feels lost or aimless. He now aspires to enter politics, but not for power.
During the quarantine, he studied how government worked and became intrigued with how elected officials of opposing ideologies seek compromise to create new laws or programs.
Baah said he wants to facilitate such compromise.
London Edwards, 14, attends St. Therese Lisieux. Edwards said she especially enjoyed the session about Juneteenth because it “really speaks about the slaves and how they worked very hard to make the world possible.”
But, she added, other topics helped her find “motivation throughout me and my surroundings.
“I have learned I am more powerful on the inside,” Edwards said, “and when I talk to God, I am magnificent.”
Tontoh said her team members want to build on the program’s success. They’re willing to share it with leaders from other parishes or dioceses.
Tontoh praised her team for helping to make the ministry work because she already has plenty to do. Tontoh came with her husband to the U.S. from Ghana nine years ago to study economics. She’s currently working on a doctorate in the field, but she always has time for the diocese’s youth.
“When I die, I don’t think God will be interested in what I learned about economics,” Tontoh said, “but, I am sure he will ask what I did to advance his kingdom.”