Youth empowerment initiative planned

ROCHESTER — Diocesan officials are not just thinking about spirituality when it comes to meeting the needs of Latino youths who they know face challenges that are unique from their suburban or rural counterparts.

The diocese also is considering the youths’ academic needs and the communitywide goal to improve high-school graduation rates for city students, explained Lynette Saenz, the diocese’s director of urban ministry.

"We want to help kids aspire for a better education," she said.

Additionally, when teens are not doing well in school, they have other issues weighing on them that prevent them from staying attuned to their faith, noted Brother Juan Lozada, director of the diocese’s Spanish Apostolate.

"They get all wound up in everyday things," he added.

To reverse these alarming trends, Saenz and a committee of deacons and diocesan staff members have developed a plan to guide these teenagers on the right track in all facets of their lives, she said. The first step involves choosing five or six young candidates — who must be 18 or older and knowledgeable about the Latino community — who will attend a summer symposium run by the Fe y Vida (Faith and Life) Institute at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., in July.

"We want to empower the Latino youth," she added. "It’s a real opportunity to develop leadership skills, life skills and strengthen their ethnic identity so they can go out and succeed in life."

The leadership candidates will be trained in the "prophets of hope" model during the symposium, explained Saenz, who has undergone the training.

"This model fosters a close relationship between the faith and the life of young adults, bringing the Gospel into the affective, intellectual, spiritual, and sociopolitical dimensions of their life," according to information at "It comes from a prophetic perspective and leads to the empowerment of young adults so that they might overcome the obstacles that prevent them from a loving communion with God and one another."

Information during the symposium is presented in Spanish, while discussions may be conducted in Spanish and English, Saenz added.

"The reality is kids are in a English-speaking world," she said.

Once the local candidates are trained, they will return to the diocese to create a ministry for urban Latino youths through participation in small communities, she added. They will be asked to make a two-year commitment.

The youth ministers will create programs based on the interests expressed by the youths they engage, Saenz added.

"If it’s art and music, they can develop programs related to that; that kids would get involved in," she said. "And then you connect the arts and music to the faith."

This youth empowerment initiative is the result of discussions that began three years ago by an Urban Ministry Task Force to "re-envision the Catholic experience in the city," Saenz added. "And the Hispanic experience is different."

Initially, the task force wanted to hire a full-time coordinator that would oversee groups of Hispanic professionals that would connect with urban youths, she explained. A coordinator would have conducted home visits as well, she added.

But the expense would have been too great, so the diocese went with an alternate plan and formed a youth pastoral committee, Saenz explained. The initiative the group developed over the past year reflects the concerns that the committee members — which include deacons, their wives and staff from local agencies — have for Latino youths in the city, added Brother Lozada.

The committee’s goals include engaging the entire family, added Deacon Bienvenido DeJesus, who is part of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Parish. Deacon DeJesus also has worked as a teacher in city high schools for more than two decades.

"It’s important to work with these families to encourage the students to finish their studies and move on to higher education," he added. "What we want is for them to stay in school."

Additionally, by offering the community Latino youth leaders trained in ministry who are themselves successful, proud of their ethnic heritage and lead a Christian life, the students the diocese hopes to help can overcome any crisis of identity and faith that causes them to drop out of school, DeJesus noted.

"That is our goal — that they become involved in the Christian way of life," he added.

Angel Alicea, who oversees youth programs for Ibero-American Action League, said that he was glad to be part of this effort as part of the committee.

"The community is in need of programs that can help our young people," he added.

The committee "also wants to guide them (youths) and make them understand that church is not only all about prayer," Brother Lozada noted. "Church is about helping. We help you at this moment and you make the commitment … as a religious person to help others then."

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