Waiting to go to confession at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center, the 10 young adults from NET’s (National Evangelization Teams) #2 team didn’t seem burned out, or, in fact, even tired. Which is downright amazing.
After five weeks of training starting last August at NET’s headquarters in St. Paul, Minn., and at a Lutheran camp in Wisconsin, eight evangelizing teams made up mostly of five girls together with five boys, hit the road in 12-seat vans. (Another four teams are involved in local evangelizing efforts.)
During their fall tour, Stephanie Kopacek, Breige Doone, Bre Benavidez, Kelly Butler, Amanda Sahagun, Chris Wuenscher, Paul Slugocki, Jose Gamez, Josh Schmitz and Kevin Davis were in North and South Dakota, Kansas, Colorado, Oregon and then back to their base in Minnesota.
And the recent spring route was no less daunting: from Kanas to Lafayette, Louisiana, then onto Austin, Texas, and across the southwest to Orange County for two weeks, before heading up to the Los Angeles Archdiocese on Feb. 27. The team will stay here for a whole month, giving youth retreats to Catholic middle and high school students along with confirmation retreats in more than 10 local parishes — from St. Rita’s in Sierra Madre to St. Mark’s in Venice. Team #2 will also be doing recruiting at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress March 13-16.
“The main object and goal of our organization is to encourage young people to embrace the life of the church, and to really grow in their faith with Christ no matter what’s happening in their lives,” said Kevin Davis, 26, of Eagan, Minn., while waiting his turn to go to confession. “So it’s just to encourage middle school and high school students, and also just introduce themselves to Christ in a relationship and to build up and make stronger their relationship.”
And, he added, “to really relate the teachings of the Gospels and what they’ve been trying to learn every Sunday at Mass to their everyday lives, so that they can be more comfortable in their faith.”
Bre Benavidez was nodding. “I think part of how we evangelize is selling who we are, explaining what God has done in our lives,” the 22-year-old from Bakersfield pointed out. “So it’s giving our testimony and just kind of sharing with youths that even though we go through hard times, even though life may be hard, to know that you’re not alone in that. Whether it’s a community of the church or Jesus, he’s next to you always.”
Beginning in 1981 as an outreach of the retreat program at the St. Paul Catholic Youth Center, NET’s founder and current executive director, Mark Berchem, pioneered a team of young adults travelling by van around southern Minnesota to give high school retreats. Soon requests for the new on-the-go ministry came from neighboring states.
In September 1981, the first year-long team was sent out to dioceses in North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Louisiana. Since then NET has not only served across America, but also in Guam, Honduras, Mexico, Germany, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Uganda and Ireland.
“Netters,” as they like to be called, challenge Catholics often not much younger than themselves to love Christ and to energetically embrace the life of the church. Currently, eight teams crisscross the U.S. for nine months sharing the gospel with youths, from junior high through high school. They travel by vans and stay overnight with host families in parishes. To date, teams have given more than 26,000 retreats in about 150 parishes and schools to more than 1.6 million young Catholics.
Josh Schmitz believes he and other netters from team #2 have touched a number of young lives with their witnessing and invitation to love their all-loving God.
“There’s definitely a lot of youths we’ve seen with sparks ignited,” said the 20-year-old from Topeka, Kansas. “But we go from parish and then, like, we leave the next day usually. So it’s kind of tough. It’s kind of like we plant seeds, and just trust and allow God to water the seeds and allow them to bear fruit, you know.
“And if on this whole journey only one youth was changed and brought a little bit closer to God, while all the others ignored what we had to say, then it would be all worth it”
Nearby, waiting to go to Mass celebrated by Msgr. Sal Pilato, superintendent of Catholic high schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, in the ACC’s chapel, was Chris Wuenscher. The 22-year-old from Houston, a graduate of Texas A&M University, says the nine-month odyssey, which will end in a couple months in Seattle, was “100 percent” worth it.
“Yeah, I’ve never looked back in faith,” he confided. “I’ve grown so much in my faith and just life skills in general. So I’m ready to move on from this year and be the man God created me to be — whether that’s a priest or in the married life. I feel much better equipped to do either of those because of this year.”
For information on NET’s schedule in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, contact team #2 co-leader Stephanie Kopacek at (651) 308-3613 or email [email protected]. The team’s blog is netusa.org/blog-team 2.