After eight years and 116 kids, tonight was my last night as the High School Youth Leader & Confirmation Coordinator at All Saints Parish. Leaving any job after that long is a complicated and emotional process, but it’s even more so in this case because youth ministry isn’t just a job, it’s a continually evolving series of relationships with people who need you, people you care about, people who call you at 2 a.m. when they’ve broken up with their boyfriend or run away from home or had a crisis of faith and don’t know who else to talk to. That’s what youth ministers do. Sometimes we’re the first line of defense, and sometimes we’re where they go when there’s nowhere left to turn, and sometimes we’re just people who slip in and out of their lives and hopefully leave them with a little bit more perspective on life and faith than they had before.
I’ve been incredibly blessed to get to serve at the church where I grew up, and to get to play a part in the lives of kids I’ve known since they were tiny. There are kids in our youth group whose parents babysat me, whose grandmothers did the church flowers with my mother, whose older cousins or siblings went to school with me. Dozens upon dozens of them reached out to our family after my mom died to send cards and flowers and letters and stories about what she meant to them. It was the teens of All Saints who put together my mom’s funeral rosary service, and it was their families who held our family together. It’s been an incredible community to be part of, and it’s bittersweet to be moving on from it, even though most days I’m fairly sure I’m doing the right thing, because I’m leaving this job to make room in my life for the thing I think I’m supposed to be doing – being a writer. If you’re a God person, you could say I’m following the vocation God laid out for me. If you’re not a God person, you could say I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up.
Tonight I said goodbye to my kids, and they said goodbye to me, and there was a lot of laughing and a lot of tears (mostly mine) and a lot of hugging, and now I am officially no longer a youth minister. But the people that have come in and out of my life over the past eight years are still part of who I am, and I’m a different – and far better – person for having known them. I’m more compassionate, for one thing. I laugh more easily. I’m more comfortable talking about, you know, FEELINGS-Y stuff, than I ever was before. I’m a better listener. I have a circle of friends who share my faith, something I never had before I became a youth minister, so I always have a source of support in tough times from people who speak my language. I had to get good at talking about faith in a way that makes sense to people who don’t talk about faith all the time. I’m happier.
I could go on and on here for pages and pages about all of the amazing memories – both powerful and hilarious – that I’ve shared with the 116 kids who have come through my Confirmation class and youth ministry program in the past years, how they’ve taught me and inspired me and made me laugh, but instead of going on and on about me I’d like to tell you a little about some of them.
Karly Bolton is graduating from college this year – she has a degree in Public Relations from U of O and she’s the head of this fancy-pants student PR firm. She also may be the funniest person I know; she can turn a trip to the grocery store into an epic saga that makes you pass out from laughing.
Claire Bradach is living in Paris, and her blog is unbelievably jealousy-inducing, full of stories about the amazing places she’s traveled and totally gorgeous pictures. She also gets major bonus points for being a Bradach, one of the great All Saints dynasties and truly some of the loveliest human beings on earth.
In eight years there has not been one Confirmation class where there was not at least one Willett as a sponsor. I sponsored Ben Rehbein, Gracie DeMeo and Bailey Titus. Cat sponsored Isobel Woolner. Chris sponsored Daniel Rehbein. My mom sponsored my cousin Kendall Boliba, my stepmom sponsored Jake Guth, and my dad sponsored Maria Colt.
Ariana Garay just graduated from St. Mary’s and is headed to U of O. I’ve known her all her life – her mom was my kindergarten teacher. She’s been one of my favorite kids ever since I taught her Shakespeare class in 8th grade and she appointed herself my intern and followed me everywhere. She’s so bright and sharp and funny and weird and amazing, and she’s my go-to person for music recommendations because she knows EVERYTHING.
Ashley Gardiner goes to school at the University of British Columbia and just got accepted into their prestigious education program. She wrote to me last fall to tell me she was applying, and she said, “I hope I can be as wonderful and caring and inspiring as you. I want to make a positive impact on children like you do. You really helped change my life.”
Jake and Rose Guth are two of my favorite kids; I’ve known them forEVER since Jake went through All Saints with my brother Colin. Their parents own Provvista Specialty Foods, which means the food at their house and parties is always SPECTACULAR. I house-sat for them a few times when their parents were in Europe, and it was kind of like adopting a bonus pair of siblings. Jake goes to Fordham lives in the Bronx, but I think probably in a less sketchy part than where I lived. Rose just graduated, like, yesterday, and is off to University of San Diego. They are one of the loveliest families I know.
In a world where a lot of people carry a lot of crappy, ugly stereotypes and fearmongering statistics about African-American teenage males – or, let’s be honest, teenage males in general – I would like to carry Delaney Quenton and Marcus Brannon around in my pocket to show people, “Look at these two incredible men of God and see how wrong you are.” For that matter, I’m proud of all of my boys; they’re good to women, they love their families, they have generous and loving hearts. Every time I’m on the bus or walking down the street and I hear a group of boys call someone a “fag” or say something degrading about women, or whatever, I am even more grateful that my boys are good boys and they’re going to grow up to be good men.
Sean Kollman is kind of a big deal, you guys. He’s only like one of the Oregon Beavers’ most badass cheerleaders. I love this kid so much I can hardly stand it. He’s one of the most amazing guys I’ve ever had the joy to watch grow up. We are bonded forever by a shared love of Billy Joel and by losing parents within a year of each other.
Alyssa Maciag lives in Brooklyn and is an intern at Alexander McQueen (that’s a major fashion designer, straight boys). I grew up across the street from her, and I used to babysit her when she was tiny. Our brothers played together, and we used to hang out at their house after school and play with their Shih Tzu, and now she has “Alexander McQueen” on her resume. I can’t even.
Ursula Woolner is in nursing school, and is engaged! She and her sister Izzy were some of our first youth ministry kids when I started at All Saints. Cat was Izzy’s Confirmation sponsor, actually. They are inhumanly gorgeous, and incredibly sweet.
Ben and Daniel Rehbein are the two best fake brothers a girl could ever have. I adore these boys. So smart, so funny, so unbelievably sarcastic, SO good at Willett-style board games. They’re not even “like” family, they ARE family. And combined they’re like eight hundred feet tall.
Rachel Sanders was in elementary school when I first started at All Saints, and we knew her as the tagalong little sister of one of the boys in the high school program. She’s heading off to OSU now, and today was her last Sunday playing guitar in the band with us, which she’s done for about 3 years. She’s an unbelievable musician. She played the ukulele at tonight’s Mass, and it was fabulous.
WRITERS: Steven Ennis, Meghan Dilg, and Molly McMahon all participated in National Novel-Writing Month last year. Steven lives in Japan now, and I almost had a heart attack after the devastating hurricanes until I found out he was okay. Meghan and I share an all-consuming passion for “Bones.” Molly was on Science Olympiad at St. Mary’s last year, and they kicked ass.
PERFORMERS: Toby Reif plays every instrument on earth, incredibly well, and is one of the smartest, funniest teenagers I know. Maggie Greene and Madeline Heinrich are two of the most incredible singers I’ve ever heard in my life. When she was at Jesuit, Maggie went to State for musical theatre performance. Maddie played and sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for me at our Confirmation retreat, and we all begged her to audition for “American Idol.” Katie Gunderson just graduated from Chapman with a theatre degree, and is by all accounts a truly brilliant and incredible actress. I can’t wait to force her to work with me. Gaedwyn Swails is studying vocal performance at Oregon State and MY GOD THIS GIRL CAN SING. She used to be in our band at church, and even then we were all like “WHOA” but she has gotten EVEN MORE AWESOME. I got to hear her sing the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil – for non-Catholics, that’s an incredibly ornate and complex, and LONG, sung prayer which begins the Mass and is done entirely a cappella. It’s kind of the gold standard for Catholic cantors, and Gaedwyn NAILED it. I had goosebumps, and I hear the Exsultet EVERY YEAR.
ACTIVISTS: I’ve protested the Westboro Baptist Church with Rachel Sanders, Maria Colt and her mom, Ryan Dennis, Johnny Rice, and several hundred other Grant and Central Catholic kids I knew, when the WBC came to Portland last spring. The number of kids from my church who were active, vocal protest organizers was awe-inspiring and beautiful to see. Sela Nixon and Maria Colt have both transformed personal tragedy and hardship into a lifelong vocation. Maria has been chronically ill, in and out of the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and even the Mayo Clinic, for as long as I’ve known her, yet instead of ever complaining about it, she is the world’s most relentlessly optimistic human being (I suspect her bloodstream to be full of rainbows and unicorns). She wants to be a doctor, because she knows what it feels like to be a scared kid in a hospital and she wants to make life better for people like her. Sela has a deeply personal and traumatic experience of losing someone to suicide, and it inspired her (at the age of, like, 13 or something) to get involved in the activist work of To Write Love On Her Arms, a nonprofit that works with people struggling with depression, self-harm and addiction. I was so inspired by Sela’s example that I made my 2010 Fertile Ground Festival show a fundraiser for them. Ariel Anderson is one of the most faithful, dedicated kids in our youth ministry group. She just got accepted to the Portland Plunge, a homelessness immersion program for teens, this summer. I don’t know many adults with the level of commitment to service and the generous heart that Ariel has. She is extraordinary.
There are literally hundreds more stories like this. Every one of these kids is amazing, and has touched my life in some way. It continues to bring joy to my heart, seeing the people they’re growing up to be. It’s sad to see that come to an end, to know that this year’s class was my last, but at the same time, I tell my kids every year during our final Confirmation session that the key to their true happiness is to find their vocation, the thing God put them here on this earth to do, and to do it as well as they can. And all 116 of those kids trusted that I was telling them the truth; so I’m pretty sure I have to do for me what I told them to do for themselves.
So goodbye, All Saints Youth Ministry. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. I had eight awesome years and now it’s somebody else’s turn to come in and be the spectacular Monica Dodge’s new sidekick and have you crazy amazing kids transform his or her life. And I think that’s how it should be.