Family life is something my husband and I take for granted. We were blessed with great parents. They taught us, supported us, and we knew beyond a doubt that their love for us was unconditional. My first job out of college was at an emergency shelter for troubled teens. In that shelter, I came face to face for the first time with another reality—that not everyone has the privilege of growing up in a loving home.
I remember a 17-year-old boy who had grown up on the streets and in shelters. He was rough, kept to himself and didn’t speak much. One night it fell upon two of us to take some of the kids to church. We ended up at a small chapel with no more than ten churchgoers. Ten kids from the shelter and my coworker and I made up half the congregation!
The kids were embarrassed to sing, since there were so few people, so I made it a point to sing extra loud, hoping they might be less self-conscious about their own voices. On the ride home in the van, the kids and I laughed about my terrible singing voice.
One person not laughing was the 17-year-old boy. He sat in the back and was quiet. He looked at me intently for awhile and then began nodding his head as if in agreement with something. He pointed at me and smiled, “I get it! You just like to make other people feel good about themselves.” He then joined in the laughing.
What worked in our shelter wasn’t just the rules and constant teaching. It was the family atmosphere we created. The kids knew they were safe—that no one there would raise a hand to them or yell at them or let another kid hurt them. They knew we cared about them and wanted the best for them. As the boy pointed out regarding my singing fiasco, we wanted the kids to feel good about themselves.
The type of loving environment we created was one they had never known in their own families. In this new world, behavior problems disappeared. Kids who were previously “out of control” cleaned up their rooms daily, did their homework and helped cook dinner.
While we worked with the youth, other counselors worked with their families at home, in hopes that they would be reunited and better equipped to live peacefully together.
I brought this experience with me to Chile six years ago when my husband and I became lay missionaries with the Columbans. Again I found myself working with youth, but this time in a different setting. We have worked in two large, inner city parishes, trying to build up the churches’ youth groups. The biggest problems we’ve seen here are drugs, teen pregnancy, domestic violence and gangs—not unlike the problems that plague young people in cities in the U.S.
We’ve learned a lot along the way and are constantly trying to learn more to enable ourselves to better help the young ones with whom we work. During our mission, we’ve taken a long list of courses: Working with High Risk Youth, Drug Prevention in Families and Sex Education for Adolescents, to name a few. At times we feel so impotent while facing these problems that we’re constantly looking for ways to build up our forces, to learn more and to be better equipped to face the challenges of everyday life in the población (Chilean ghetto).
These courses have helped, but in the end, I think the biggest gift we can give teens today is a loving community. More and more teens are turning to sex partners, drugs or gangs in order to have a sense of being loved or belonging.
Some of our best results in the parish have come from activities that strengthen the families and the church community that they form. Two years ago we celebrated Family Week in our chapel by offering nightly talks, testimonies and games related to strengthening the family. During the week we discussed issues like prayer, communication and discipline.
Parents found a support group in other parents, and kids found a safe place to play and share with others their own age. On the first night of our talks, about fifteen adults showed up. Each night brought more people, and by the end of the week we had about 50 adults participating.
This was a wakeup call for our chapel that families were the key to creating both a strong church community and a strong society. Since then, my husband and I have been trying to connect to families through all of our ministries. Working with youth groups here has entailed much more than simply providing catechism to teens preparing for confirmation.
Rather, we are constantly trying to build bridges between the kids and their parents, visiting their homes and encouraging communication. Simple acts like going to Mass, praying the rosary or sitting down to a meal (without watching television while eating together) are transformational opportunities when shared as a family.
The reality in the población, just as in other parts of the world, is that the family unit has changed. Mother and father are often not married and both may not be a part of their children’s lives. Grandparents are either not present at all or are the primary caregivers. Sometimes, the people to whom children feel closest are not blood relatives at all.
In the end, it’s not the composition of a family that matters most but rather the strength of the love that binds it together. Our church community is a family too, and it is important to strengthen our ties in order to remain strong while facing the challenges of the world today.
Columban lay missionary Anna Draper lives and works in Chile with her husband David and son Joshua.
This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Columban Mission.