JD Duran was 2 when his parents noticed something was off. He could run and walk, but he was tripping far more than a typical toddler.
Concerned, they met with numerous doctors in search of answers. Eventually their son received a diagnosis -- Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a degenerative nerve disorder.
"I didn't always need a wheelchair," Duran, now 24, told a crowd of Catholics at this year's national Singles for Christ conference. Though his disease is not considered fatal, it's characterized by progressive loss of muscle tissue and sensation across various parts of the body. How it will affect him long term is unclear.
What did become clear through intense prayer is that "Jesus -- he's got me covered," said the member of St. Charles Parish in Northeast Portland.
Duran's story of moving from fear and uncertainty to solace and strength was one of many testimonies shared at the 25th Singles for Christ conference. The love of God, the power of community and the need to share one's gifts were among the central messages of the Aug. 2-4 gathering, which brought around 350 young adults from across the country to Portland.
"The church is where God exists in the world," said Tina Leung, an Oregon-based pastoral missionary with Couples for Christ Family Ministries USA and a conference organizer. Attendees were reminded that God "really speaks through your brothers and sisters and community," who help you recognize "things aren't that bad, that things will get better and he still loves you no matter what," she said.
The event's packed schedule included Masses, praise and worship, the rosary, opportunities for confession, and a series of talks and workshops. To glorify God through their talents and encourage creative evangelization, there were competitions in dance, poetry, photography, T-shirt design and video.
"Art is such a gift from God," said event organizer Patrick Coronel, a pastoral worker for Couples for Christ USA in Florida. "Giving our young adults a place, a platform, a stage to just express their prayer in a different way than traditional prayer is always super inspiring."
The conference is for young people -- some in college, many working professionals -- but there were more than two dozen couples present to offer support.
Singles for Christ is part of the international organization Couples for Christ, "a womb to tomb ministry," said Randy Muyargas, who traveled to Portland from Orange County, California, with his wife, Kara. The charismatic lay Catholic movement, which has ministries for Catholics of all ages, married and single, was founded in the Philippines in 1981.
"We support our singles because we don't see them as a ministry that is separate from our ministry," Muyargas told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland. "The charism of Couples for Christ is that we renew the face of the earth through the power of the Holy Spirit as families -- not just as singles, not just as kids, not just as couples."
Singles for Christ grounds daily life, Duran said.
"Having a disability can be uncertain, but a ministry like this is consistent and something that I can come back to in regard to my faith," said Duran, who recently finished college and secured a job. He also dances, coaches and competes in wheelchair races.
Conference attendee Neil Turiano, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, Oregon, said he loved the fellowship, praise and worship but also the practical topics addressed in the workshops. A session on relationships explored how young people often date without an end goal of marriage. It explored how we "should work to change that for ourselves," said Turiano.
Allison Perez is a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Aloha who's involved with Singles for Christ campus ministry at Oregon State University. She found the workshop on mission especially compelling.
"When you hear missionary work, people think that you have to go super far away or travel to different countries," she said. This presentation emphasized that "a true missionary is every single one of us in our hearts," said the 22-year-old. "It's being ready every single day" and viewing "your daily life as a mission."
Father Mike Walker, pastor of St. James Parish in McMinnville, celebrated Mass on the final day of the conference. During his homily, he said the gathering was a time to hear great music and spend time with friends.
"But really what this is about," he told the young adults, "is all of you together coming to know the Lord in a deeper way and to begin to really express that in your individual lives and as a church."
Maryland will host next year's national conference.
Katie Scott is special projects reporter at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.