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Youth group gave Fredericksburg youth minster a second chance

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Leo Chavarria vividly remembers the first time he stepped into youth group. A high school sophomore, Chavarria had been arrested for theft, and in desperation, his father dragged him to Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria. “Fix him,” his dad told the youth minister and pastor. “Father said, ‘We’ll see what we can do,’” Chavarria recalled.

Chavarria is now director of youth ministry at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg.

When he was 8, his family moved from their native Argentina to Maryland. As a teen, Chavarria got into a lot of trouble, he said, culminating with the arrest. Though he spent a day in a juvenile detention center, Chavarria was never charged for the crime, he said, “by the grace of God.” But his father wasn’t taking any chances.

Chavarria didn't quite fit in at the youth group. “The kids were well off, most went to private school, and here comes this chump from the ghetto, in baggy pants and big shirts,” he said. “But they just welcomed me. From the moment I walked into that youth program, my life was changed.”

After college, Chavarria became youth minster at Good Shepherd, replacing the man who had been his mentor. After three years, he went to seminary for the Companions of the Cross in Canada. He later left the community, and for the past nine years, he has worked at St. Mary. He and his wife, Jessica, have two daughters, ages 4 and 4 months.

Around 150 middle and high schoolers regularly come to youth events at the parish. They also attend diocesan events, such as WorkCamp, Rally and Bash and service trips to the diocesan mission in Bánica, Dominican Republic. “The lights are always on,” joked Chavarria.

Every Sunday during the school year, around 70 high schoolers eat a home-cooked meal at the parish during the youth program’s biggest weekly event. Then Chavarria leads them in a game that inevitably will be turned into a metaphor for the spiritual life.

“We play this game called healer dodgeball, and there’s this person on the team who goes around and prays over the person and resurrects them, so to speak,” he explained. “Then we tie it in: sin hits us and we need God to bring us back and restore us.”

They’ll have a talk or video presentation before breaking into small groups and discussing the topic. To close the evening, they spend 20 minutes in prayer, whether it be adoration, a rosary or silent reflection.

To help minister to the middle schoolers, this year the parish hired Tatiana Beltran, a recent graduate of Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg. Chavarria and Beltran also rely on some 120 volunteers to make food, supervise events, facilitate fundraisers and drive.

“We love Leo and Tatiana and they’re both a treasure to this parish. Youth ministry is so important,” said Father John P. Mosimann, pastor. “We will not let them go anywhere,” he joked.

At a basic level, Chavarria said, youth group “is a place where (teens) can be who they are and not have to worry about judgment. If you’re coming, you’ll be cared for and loved and welcomed. Hopefully by the time you leave, you’ll be who God is calling you to be,” he said.

To stay connected to the students, the program is active on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Though teens today are constantly busy with different extracurricular activities, said Chavarria, inside they’re bored, empty and hungry.

“(Especially) for guys, we’re having such a crisis,” he said. “We have to have something that inspires us, that we’re willing to die for, something that’s going to challenge us. You're made for more than just sitting in comfort and playing with your iPhone.”

Particularly when the leaders organize a service opportunity for the teens, the young people discover the joy and meaning found in living a faith-filled life, said Chavarria. “They’re doing all these things for themselves. I think when they discover doing something for another, (they realize) this is what it’s about.”

In the future, Chavarria hopes the parish youth program will encompass elementary school students as well. “If we can get them young, if we can get faith formation being a natural part of everything they do, as they grow it’s just a constant narrative that they’re hearing,” he said. “By the time they do get to the high school program, it will be a smooth transition.”

As Chavarria has learned on the job, the youth program isn’t just about Catholics ages 11 to 18. It involves the whole family. “I can’t tell you how many times parents have sat in that chair and cried with me or prayed with me, sometimes related to youth, sometimes not. It’s just part of the ministry,” he said.

It reminds him of his own introduction to youth group through his father. “I just kind of laugh when I think back to that moment,” he said. “It helps me to remember that just because there’s a kid in front of me who got arrested or is doing things that are not conducive to his holiness or well-being — that was me. If God could change me, God could change anyone.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017