By Robert C. Scarpa
I can remember the date well, July 3rd, 1998. I was sitting in the audience at the Parish Life Conference, Talent Show. It had been a difficult year for me due to the recent passing of my grandfather, a few months prior. Every year, my brothers and I would attend the PLC with my grandparents. On this occasion, my heart was saddened. I found myself reminiscing about wonderful memories, not knowing that my future was about to change in a most profound way at that moment.
Dino Mavropoulos, had just concluded his masterful performance on the violin. As the crowd stood in applause, I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder. I turned around to see Somaya Watkins, with a warm, caring smile on her face. We began a conversation about the youth in the parish and she proceeded to ask me if I had any interest in becoming the next Teen SOYO advisor.
I have always believed that God has always directed my path in life but not until years later would I realize the life changing significance of accepting this request. I nervously said, “Yes.”, not knowing what I was about to get myself into. I have never had any experience dealing with teenagers, on a leadership level, as I was just 22 years old myself. At this time in my life, I was someone who never liked to take any risks. This role was “not in my personality.” I was just beginning graduate school and was anxious on how I was going to divide my time and provide the attention required to be a SOYO advisor.
Over the next 6 years, my life was blessed ten-fold with the experiences that I encountered , by being surrounded with the love of our St. Anthony’s SOYO. Our first event, was a “Lock In” that included 5 teens alongside myself and my brother, Brian.
That night, not knowingly at that time, served as a foundation in which our service ministry would be built upon. Initial, delicate bonds were being formed between the youth. I left that evening with a sense of comfort knowing that this endeavor can work but also with a sense of trepidation knowing how much work lay ahead getting the Teen Program up to its potential.
As the months past on that calendar year, the foundation that was developed on that first night, started to take hold. God’s love for us, was the foundation. Not only did the SOYO start to build in size but it became stronger in faith and love. Children, who would have never spoken to one another developed the beginnings of life – long friendships.
As the years passed, those “Lock In’s” would grow in size to 45 teens. Teens from our parish would bring friends from school. The church was the “cool place” to be. We would spend the night in church, sitting at the front of the altar, talking about pressing issues in our lives. The only rule was, that when someone was speaking they were to receive the undivided attention of all present. As the hours passed to the early morning, the conversations would continue but the silence by all, was all the more powerful. It showed me that St. Anthony’s teens “got it.” They knew, that everyone was important and everyone deserved to be heard. It had taught me that although we are all different in many aspects of out personality, we are all connected to one another by a genuine love; a love that was evident when we looked up at the altar and saw the Virgin Mary staring into her Son’s eyes, depicted in the icon of His birth.
When they call me so many years later to tell me that, “we need to help someone” who’s voice has been muted and who’s cries have fallen upon deaf ears, it brings a tear to my eye but also a warmth to my heart knowing that they still provide that undivided attention.
I was blessed to experience the teens using their hands to construct homes for those in need, plant gardens, and to feed the homeless. I would observe the teens hand the food to those without, and look into their eyes, and the love for a stranger was evident. Preconceived judgements were non existent. An example of love that I was fortunate enough too witness was when a teen (who had difficulty making friends in school) performed in their school’s Christmas concert and looked out from the stage to see, 40 friends from church, surprise them in the audience. These occasions have left a lasting impression on my view of society, as a whole. Although we hear of the evils in world, I have seen and continue to see through their efforts that God’s love is so much more powerful than any other force. The teens taught me that if God’s love is allowed to enter one’s soul, it will not only become planted but will flourish and spread.
Many of those who were teenagers 15 years ago have taken that “foundation of love” and built upon it; continuing to serve the Lord. It is a blessing to see “my teens” (I will always call them that because I am proud), raise their children in the church. With God’s guidance, the fruits of their labors of love will be passed down to the next generation.
By saying, “Yes”, to Somaya Watkin’s, 18 years ago, my life’s direction began to take hold. “My teens” have become my best friends and through them I was given the opportunity to meet my wife, Pamela. “My Teen’s” stood by my side at my wedding and continue to stand by my side as we journey through life, together; bonded by our love in Christ.
When I kiss my children, “good night,” I am reminded daily and am so grateful that I put my faith in God, and took on the challenge and said, “yes.”