.- It is an overcast day with threatening rain clouds overhead, but the mood in the basement of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Northeast Washington is downright sunny. Here, a group of Catholic teens are hard at work helping to prepare the “Holy Foods Market” food pantry for one of its monthly openings, and then later in the day they would make and distribute bagged lunches to some of DC’s homeless population.
The teens, under the supervision of adult volunteers, were participating in Encounter the Gospel of Life’s Service Camp, a weeklong program that place groups of teenagers with nonprofits in the Washington, D.C. area, where they serve during the day. At night, there are keynote speeches, concerts, prayers, and community building.
The Holy Foods Pantry was one of the nonprofit work sites, and a group of mostly high schoolers was stationed there for the week. CNA spoke to some of the participants to learn more about what would entice a teenager to give up a week of their summer vacation to serve on the streets of DC.
Frances Noory is a 15-year-old sophomore at a Catholic high school in northern Virginia. She told CNA that she “just really loves helping people,” and that she believes her service with Encounter is “God’s work and what He wants us to do.”
At Holy Foods Pantry, Noory said she had been working to organize the pantry, and assist clients with the “shopping” process.
“And then, we also make lunches and go out on to the streets–we hand them out to people who are in need, and we pray with them and talk with them and just give them support,” she said.
As a young, faithful Catholic, she said that living her faith “can be difficult sometimes,” but experiences like Encounter are “very encouraging and exciting.”
With programs like this, Catholic teens are given the opportunity to meet and fellowship with each other. Encounter participants are mainly from the Washington area, but the camp is open to groups from around the country.
Ryanne Thereault, 16, agreed with Noory. This is Thereault’s second time doing Encounter, but her first at the Holy Foods Pantry site. She told CNA that she loved “the atmosphere that the camp creates,” and that “everyone is just there for each other, and we all have a great time serving.”
Thereault also appreciated the opportunity to serve the less fortunate.
“I loved interacting with people on the streets,” said Thereault. “They all have really good hearts, and they were so happy to see us. They were really thankful for us.”
Many of the people CNA spoke to had been to Encounter in the past. For Matt Lawry, a 17-year-old who attends Archbishop Curley High School, this was his third summer, but his first working with the homeless. In previous summers, his service sites were primarily working with children.
“This site is more eye-opening, ‘cause you go out and interact with the homeless. It’s a completely different experience,” he said. In particular, he was struck by his encounter with a man named Orlando.
“He was in jail for like, 25 years,” said Lawry. “He was just telling us about how he did like every drug in the book, and that he promised his parents he would make it out, and he’d keep doing good things.”
Overall, Lawry said that he had enjoyed his time serving on the streets, and that “working with the homeless is like working to get closer to God.”
Young adults who have graduated from high school are also able to participate in Encounter’s service camp. Unlike the youth participants, young adults are able to pick their service site. Christine Johnson, an 18-year-old who attends the University of Maryland, chose Holy Foods Pantry.
This is Johnson’s fourth time doing Encounter. “It’s been probably the best four weeks of my life, every year. I’ve just met so many amazing people,” she said. Holy Foods was her favorite site “by far,” even though she had no idea what to expect when she first arrived.
She said she’s watched her group mates mature over the week, and they were able to overcome their initial apprehension about talking to homeless people.
Inner-city DC is very different from where Johnson grew up, and she said she has very much grown from her week serving on the streets.
“Despite the fact that we’re bringing them lunches and we’re talking to them, every time I interact with someone I just feel like I’ve gotten so much more from them than I’m able to give them,” she said.
Johnson told CNA that she has encountered Christ through her service work.
“We do this thing at the end of the day where we go around in a circle and we all say our ‘God sighting’ for the day,” she said. “I feel like I have so many every day from this site, just because every person I meet says something and I am like, ‘That was Jesus speaking through you.'”
Encounter has given Johnson much hope for the future of the Church in the United States, and it makes her happy to see hundreds of young people gathered together to serve the Lord.
“When someone is up on stage playing music, and everyone in the crowd is like swaying together and screaming the words together–you can see in their faces they know what it means, and they’re so happy to be here,” she said.
“It’s the future of the Church, and it looks pretty bright to me.”