Popular youth ministry will be on campus beginning with fall semester
By Bill Brewer
In what is likely a first for the Diocese of Knoxville, Knoxville Catholic High School will host a Young Life team for the 2022-23 academic year.
And as part of an effort to double down on evangelizing to Knoxville-area Catholic youth, the Diocese of Knoxville’s Office of Youth, Young Adult, and Pastoral Juvenil Ministry has plans to reinvigorate the SEARCH program for Catholic teens.
Young Life is a Christian ministry that reaches out to middle school, high school, and college students in all 50 states and in more than 100 countries.
The nonprofit ministry, which has been evangelizing to high school students in the Knoxville area for decades, has a presence in all Knox County high schools and also ministers at Webb School of Knoxville and Christian Academy of Knoxville.
While traditionally considered a Protestant evangelical organization, Young Life has a Catholic division dedicated to helping Catholic students grow in their relationship to Jesus and strengthen their faith.
The team leaders assigned to KCHS will share their ministry in keeping with the Catholic faith, said Dickie Sompayrac, president of the school.
And according to Young Life, its Catholic Relations arm trains its staff and volunteers to minister to Catholic teens in ways that respect and renew their Catholic faith in Jesus.
The Young Life leaders assigned to KCHS are Katie Schulze, Kate Hoots, and William Linton.
Mrs. Schulze, 26, is a graduate of Bearden High School in Knoxville and Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City. She and her husband, Sam, have been Young Life leaders since 2014. Sam Schulze is a leader at Farragut High School.
Joining Mrs. Schulze at KCHS are Miss Hoots, 21, a University of Tennessee-Knoxville student who is a graduate of Father Ryan Catholic High School in Nashville, and Mr. Linton, 26, who is from Knoxville and graduated high school from Christian Academy and then Clemson University.
Mr. Sompayrac said he and his staff at KCHS have looked at inviting Young Life to the school “two or three times” in the 17 years he has led KCHS.
He pointed out that Young Life’s dedication to evangelizing Catholic youth through its Catholic Relations arm can be seen in Catholic schools around the country. As part of researching Young Life before inviting the organization to KCHS, Mr. Sompayrac enlisted the expertise of Father Christopher Floersh as chaplain of the school, religion teacher Sister Scholastica, OP, and KCHS academic dean Jane Walker.
“Then, we went to an annual Young Life dinner and met with Will Acker, Knoxville metro director of Young Life. He invited me, my wife, Jenny, and my sons, Ben and Nicholas, to a Young Life retreat in North Carolina. Ben is in school at KCHS. It was a really positive experience,” Mr. Sompayrac shared.
He observed that years ago there was a fear that a Young Life presence at KCHS would draw students away from the Catholic Church.
“It’s not a denominational separation. It’s about kids having a personal relationship with Jesus, and that certainly lines up with our mission. At the heart of Young Life is encouraging kids to have a personal relationship with Jesus,” he said.
Mr. Sompayrac explained that Mrs. Schulze, Miss Hoots, and Mr. Linton will work closely with KCHS and be present on campus, such as attending lunch two or three times a week while attending extracurricular activities, too.
There also will be a weekly, off-campus Young Life gathering of students.
Mr. Sompayrac said when he was growing up in Hixson and attending Notre Dame High School, he had friends who were in Young Life.
“Everything I’ve always heard has been positive. It’s about journeying with Jesus. I’m hopeful Young Life will help our kids on that journey,” he added. “I think youth ministry has been a struggle for the Catholic Church, especially among adolescent teens. I certainly hope this helps in that regard.”
As a parent, Mr. Sompayrac had questions about how Young Life would integrate into a Catholic high school setting and how an organization well known among Protestant faiths would minister to Catholic teens.
“This is not a Protestant movement. This is a Christian movement. This is getting closer to Jesus. We’ve been using this language at Knoxville Catholic High School for years. Young Life is going to help us do that. It’s going to help our students grow in their relationship with Jesus,” he said.
“There’s a real willingness by Young Life to come in and respect Catholic teaching and tradition and not do anything contradictory to Catholic teaching,” he continued. “We really feel like we’ve vetted this well and that it will be a really good thing for Knoxville Catholic High School.”
While Mr. Sompayrac wasn’t involved in Young Life as a teen growing up in the Chattanooga area, he did participate in SEARCH, which is an experience in encountering Jesus Christ that will assist teens in living a Christian life as they enter into young adulthood. SEARCH aims to ignite the disciple in each participant to go forth and proclaim the Gospel.
He is working with the Office of Youth, Young Adult, and Pastoral Juvenil Ministry to re-energize SEARCH in the Knoxville area after it has been inactive in recent years. He would like to see it approach the popularity it enjoys in Chattanooga.
“Growing up in Chattanooga, I was involved in two SEARCH experiences, and I was able to go back as a leader in 1987-88. It’s such a part of the Catholic youth community in Chattanooga. The priest at Notre Dame always headed up SEARCH. The diocese is interested in Knoxville getting that back,” Mr. Sompayrac said.
He pointed out that in Chattanooga, SEARCH sponsors three weekend retreats each year—in the fall, winter, and spring, with 35-40 students attending each retreat.
He noted that for SEARCH to be successful in the Knoxville area, it will need someone to consistently lead it like the priest does at Notre Dame.
“For it to really work, you have to have boots on the ground. I would love to see SEARCH take off. I think both SEARCH and Young Life can be successful,” Mr. Sompayrac said.
Mrs. Schulze said she is excited to start a new Young Life chapter at KCHS.
“It’s been a little daunting, but very encouraging. It’s very exciting, not scary at all,” she said. “I feel like a lot of kids are itching to have this. I’m really excited to just show up for these kids and be a constant in their lives. We’re going to be there as much as possible, during lunch a couple of times a week, before and after school, and at sporting events and plays. We like to show up for anything the school and the kids are doing.”
And the high school’s new Young Life leaders are just as excited about starting Young Life Club on Monday nights each week off campus.
“My hope and goal with Knoxville Catholic are to have the Young Life Club in the same place every week,” Mrs. Schulze added, pointing to the importance of reaching kids where they are. “In Young Life, we call it the right to be heard.”
She noted that as Young Life gets established at KCHS, there is an offshoot Bible study program called Campaigners. There is a Campaigners group for girls and one for boys.
Mrs. Schulze credited the KCHS parents and Mr. Sompayrac for making Young Life available to the students.
“Dickie has been phenomenal and the parents, too. Dickie has been a major champion, and the parents have been instrumental in Young Life being welcomed on campus,” she said.
She acknowledged that Young Life at KCHS will be different than it is at the other public and private high schools. “But our intention is to do what Young Life does best, and that’s walking alongside kids and helping them grow in their faith.”
While the mission and ministry of the new Young Life chapter at KCHS is to strengthen students’ relationship with Jesus, Young Life will not be a substitution for the Catholic Church or a conduit to other faiths, Mr. Sompayrac and Mrs. Schulze agreed.
“We are not the Church. We come alongside the Church. We want kids to continue to go to Mass. We want to help them let their faith come alive in the Catholic Church,” Mrs. Schulze said. “We want our leadership teams to reflect the students. We’re not there yet at Knoxville Catholic, but Kate (Hoots) is a practicing Catholic who is helping us understand the faith.”
Brittany Garcia, director of the diocesan Office of Youth, Young Adult, and Pastoral Juvenil Ministry, is looking forward to Young Life and SEARCH getting underway now that the diocese has laid the groundwork.
“The fact that both Young Life and SEARCH are starting up at Knoxville Catholic High School in the same academic year is quite exciting! These are two very distinct ministries but together they have the possibility to embolden the students’ faith lives and to strengthen them on their individual journeys as disciples of Christ,” Mrs. Garcia said.
Deacon Al Forsythe, formerly director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, led discussions to bring Young Life into the diocese more than five years ago.
He remembers that both organizations had much to learn about each other.
“Our first discussions were not about anything more than establishing relationships between the Catholic Church and Young Life. I believe both groups had some misconceptions about each other. But when we took the time to get to know each other and really understand each other, then that relationship could move us forward,” Deacon Forsythe recalled.
He also remembers meetings with Tim Teague, then the area coordinator for Young Life, at Chick-Fil-A in Bearden and being introduced to Will Acker and Michael Havercamp, the national coordinator for Young Life and Young Life’s Catholic Relations arm.
“As far as I can remember, this all started back in 2016,” he said, noting that discussions were overshadowed by misperceptions about the Catholic faith and Young Life’s intentions.
“Now that we have been in a relationship for a while and a sense of trust has been established, we all have earned the right to be heard. And the teens pick up on that, so instead of adversaries we are now co-workers in the same vineyard, with the same goal of bringing teens back into a relationship with Christ and His Church,” Deacon Forsythe said.
He is thankful that his efforts over the past several years are bearing fruit.
“I would like to think I had a small part in making this progress, and I’m happy that the diocese has accepted the fact that Young Life is an organization who we can learn from, and Young Life has come to learn a lot about the diocese and what we can do to help each other connect teens to their home parish,” Deacon Forsythe noted.
He just prays that everyone involved will support this ministry to bring Jesus closer to those who are the future of the Church.
“We as the Catholic Church need to be ready to welcome our teens home and give them a place where they feel welcomed and appreciated for the gifts they bring to the Church. If we embrace this opportunity, we will surely see the fruits in our local youth ministry programs and parishes,” Deacon Forsythe concluded. “I am excited to learn about Young Life coming to Knoxville Catholic. I believe they have a great energy about them and a heart for young people and bringing them to a relationship with Christ.”