‘There am I in the midst of them’

Alive in You Catholic conference, service camp brings teens to diocese

By Gabrielle Nolan

Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

It is without question that Jesus was present when nearly 300 teenagers descended upon Knoxville on the campus of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus for the Alive in You conference the week of June 27–July 2.

Alive in You teen participants perform yard work for a Knoxville-area resident over the summer.

According to its website, the vision of Alive in You is “to enable our participants to open their hearts and allow Christ to become the center of their lives. Our goal is to educate, motivate, and provide young people with a life-changing Catholic experience. Alive in You is grounded in the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church, and we strive to provide the perfect balance of faith, service, education, and fun.”

Alive in You was founded in 2006 by youth minister Jim Weir and his wife, Heather.

“I was a youth minister in Orlando at the time and was looking for an experience for our teens that really was a little bit more of a blend of service and spirituality,” Mr. Weir said. “We would take them to a conference and they would do, you know, have a lot of great things for the teens spiritually, but then they wouldn’t have service work. Or we might go to a work camp or a service event and do great work, but then it didn’t have the spiritual elements to tie into it. So, we created Alive in You to kind of blend those two things so the kids could really understand how our faith is really what inspires us to go serve other people and the connection there.”

Mr. Weir currently is a youth minister at St. Joseph Parish in Fayetteville, Ark.

“I do junior high and high school ministry there, confirmation; I also teach eighth-grade religion. Then in the summer, I take leave from my job there and run these camps,” he explained.

This summer’s camps included locations in Mobile, Ala., Orlando, Fla., Fond du Lac, Wis., and Knoxville. High school teenagers from all over the country travel to the camps.

Alive in You has come to the Sacred Heart Cathedral campus five times.

Nearly 300 teens gathered for nightly fellowship in Sacred Heart’s Cathedral Hall during the Alive in You Summer conference.

“We have this beautiful, annual relationship,” said Scott Barron, director of parish ministries for the cathedral. “We’re an evangelizing parish, so they match up with our mission. … It’s kind of nice to have high school-age kids living on campus and kind of just being part of our culture for a week, joining us in worship, and getting to meet with our staff as well. So, it’s kind of fun just to meet kids from different parts of the country.”

Mr. Weir agrees that “everybody on staff here and everybody at the diocese really understands and believes in our ministry and is completely sup portive, all the way from local priests hearing confessions for our participants and them allowing us to join them for Mass all the time, all the way down to Scott and the facility people and Rick [Grinstead] the youth minister, everybody has just been really great.”

“We switch a lot of our locations, but we always come back [to Sacred Heart] because everybody here’s just so supportive,” Mr. Weir continued. “We’re on the road all summer, it almost feels a little bit like you’re home, you know, because we’re going to be here for a week, and it’s just so familiar and to just see familiar faces that really believe in what we’re doing is pretty awesome, and that’s why we come back each year.”

Helping Mr. Weir with the camps during the summer is a staff of 10, along with a four-person band. Youth groups also come with additional adult chaperones.

Knoxville’s camp saw 16 different youth groups, with some ranging from as small as five teenagers all the way up to 40 teens.

A typical day at the camp includes morning and evening sessions of praise and worship, daily Mass, service projects, free time, witness talks, parish time, and games.

Service projects took place at locations such as Horse Haven, Salvation Army, KARM stores, Young Williams Animal Center, Family Promise, and more.

The theme of the camp was “Ascend,” focusing on the gift of fortitude.

Teens taking part in the Alive in You Summer Conference participate in a contest of dressing like the elderly. The conference was held on the campus of Sacred Heart Cathedral from June 27-July 2.

“Last summer we did a theme where we focused particularly on Pentecost, and so we were kind of continuing with the Holy Spirit theme, so we’re honing in on the gift of fortitude and just using that to kind of help young people understand that we have these gifts that are given to us that we can use, to be able to overcome and you know, ascend if you will, over things, difficulties in our life,” Mr. Weir shared.

“Some of our themes for the day are ascend over fear, ascend over suffering, and things that all of us face, and just being able to use the gifts of the Holy Spirit, this virtue of fortitude and then also our community, our relationship with God to help us to rise above some of these challenges in our life and things like that,” he continued.

Assistant youth minister Augie Jellie brought her youth group from Vero Beach, Fla., with the organization Youth on a Mission.

“This is the first time for a lot of these kids. We, as Youth on a Mission, have been coming for more than 10 years,” she said. “It’s just so important to get them to a place where there are so many other Catholic youth around them, and they have an opportunity to kind of be put out of their comfort zone, not at home, and they have the chance to go and serve the community. They get to spend the week with other amazing people. They get to spend the week meeting other people from their age from across the country that came here to do the same thing.”

Ms. Jellie’s favorite part of Alive in You is the overall program.

“We’ve gone to a couple of different organizations for camps, and I really like how Alive in You does the program and really engages with the kids, and their witness talks, I think, are very well put-together in terms of bringing it down to the kids’ level and making it really relatable for them,” she said.

Ms. Jellie also believes the Catholic camp helps her own faith journey.

“I love getting to see the kids’ connections that they form, and I think it helps train me in the sense of having grace because teenagers are teenagers, and they mess up over the course of the week, small mess-ups, big mess-ups, whatever. We teach them that we can make mistakes, life is about forgiveness, and we need to be able to move past mistakes and make better choices next time. So, it helps train me and my patience and my grace, and I ask God for help with that when I’m here, so it just grows me closer as well.”

Bianca and Abigail, two 17-year-olds from the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said their favorite part of the week was their service day at The Muse Knoxville, a children’s science, technology, engineering, arts, and math museum.

“Our service project was to go to this children’s museum and help them out there, and I really like kids,” Bianca said.

Alive in you teens assist at a KARM store in Knoxville while they were attending the Alive in You summer conference.

“I just liked interacting with kids and seeing them have the creative mindset that they have and just having different roles combined,” Abigail shared.

Bianca believes she has “definitely grown as a person in my faith” because of the camp.

“This is my first time going to Mass six days in a row, and every day it was just really eye-opening. And then also I went to confession, and we also had adoration, so being able to do all of those in one week just really helped me get what I needed to get in this moment from God,” she said.

Abigail shared that she enjoyed being with hundreds of kids from around the country.

“I made tons of friends; I have friends now that I will never forget about; I have relationships I will never forget about. It’s always something that whenever I come to these kinds of retreats, it’s always something that stays close to my heart, and I always remember the people,” she said.

Mr. Weir noted that at each camp there is normally a turning point where “you just kind of start to see the walls come down and people kind of buy in to what’s going on and to really understand what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

“We’ve had kids over the years, youth ministers tell us, that you know this one kid was kicking and screaming coming here, they didn’t want to come, their parents were forcing them, and by the last day they were the ones who were up there thanking us for running this kind of an event and letting us know that it was really impactful and life-changing for them. So yeah, we really do see a lot of transformation in our participants over the course of the week,” he observed.

Father Mark Wajda, an Orlando, Fla., priest, brought a group up from his parish and celebrated the closing Mass on July 2 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. He also witnessed a transformation in the kids during the week at Alive in You.

“It’s amazing to see them come in, well first of all, especially a group this size, nobody knows anybody, it’s all a little strange. But you can see them starting to get a little more on fire for their faith, in the small groups, in the large group in the talks that they have, the witness talks and all that kind of stuff. You can see the wheels turning… obviously within your own group, you see that spark… ‘I can be Christian and still be a teenager.’ It’s amazing,” he said.

“Seeing 300 kids growing, I get choked up about it. It really is amazing to be able to walk with them on a journey, even with some of them it’s only a week. It grabs my heart,” Father Wajda said.

For more information on the Alive in You camps, visit aliveinyou.com.

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