DeVon Dunlap, 24, never thought she could speak in public without falling apart. Before graduating from college at Franciscan University of Steubenville in May 2011, she couldn’t see herself doing what she does now — speaking to thousands of young people about true love and chastity as a full-time Generation of Life missionary.
At the rate Dunlap and 15 other fellow Gen Life missionaries are going, they will have served more than 100,000 students by the end of the school year beginning in September 2012.
"We’re fighting abortion by promoting the virtue of chastity. At the root cause of the culture of death is a lack of understanding of our body and our procreative powers," said Cristina Barba, Generation Life’s executive director.
Founded in 2001, Generation Life (GenerationLife.org) is a movement of young people committed to building a culture of life by educating peers on pro-life and chastity matters and developing leaders for the pro-life movement. Its missionary program started in the fall of 2009.
The response to the missionaries has been nothing short of outstanding. Greg Schleppenbach, director of Pro-Life Activities at the Nebraska Catholic Conference for the last 22 years, said: "Gen Life missionaries are able to effectively convey the truth and beauty of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality peer-to-peer and in a winsome fashion."
Inspired by the fruitfulness of Gen Life’s work in its birthplace, the Archdioceses of Philadelphia, and, later, in the Archdiocese of New York, the three dioceses of Nebraska, coordinated by Schleppenbach, invited the group to speak to Catholic students in the area.
The teams in Philadelphia and New York City have a year to give classroom and parish presentations to middle and high-school students, as well as at school assemblies and retreats. The "travel team," on the other hand, has two and a half months to accomplish the same mission before moving on to another location.
By the end of the travel team’s current mission in the dioceses of Nebraska, they will have brought the message of chastity to 9,000-plus students. This year, the team will also bring this message to the youth in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan.
Timothy Wegner at North American Martyrs Parish in Lincoln, Neb., was one of the youth ministers who invited the travel team to speak to the parish’s youth and their parents.
"The Gen Life missionaries are genuine and joyful. Their presentations are not canned, and I never heard the same talk twice. The youth appreciate that they can get real with them. Even the parents were blown away," he said.
Generation Life seeks to empower parents, being the primary educators of their children, with knowledge to cultivate the virtue of chastity in their children — from modesty in dress and media exposure to developing skills to communicate about human sexuality.
The male missionaries in Lincoln gave presentations to the boys, and the female missionaries spoke to the girls. The presentations to high-school students typically cover "Chastity 101," combating the lies presented by the culture of death and a critical analysis of the modern media.
The grade-school series, targeted to seventh- and eighth-graders, presents chastity as a key to being happy, healthy and holy in this world and the next; they see a video of the stages of fetal development and explore the sacrament of marriage, as well as the single and religious life. Also offered: An eighth-grade Chastity Day celebrates the gift of living out a life of sexual purity.
The grade-school series of presentations is Gen Life’s counterpart to the comprehensive sex-education programs that have become the norm in more than 1,500 school districts across the nation.
"We always try to gauge what the kids need to learn with the help of their parents and teachers. We strive to preserve innocence, but we refuse to water down the truth. There are places where many of the students have learned the virtue of chastity at home and school and are living it out. There are places, however, where students as young as 13 are already sexually active," Dunlap said.
In places like New York City, where sex ed is mandated, Gen Life missionaries have ministered to students who have been indoctrinated in programs promoting sexual licentiousness and the contraceptive mentality.
"We find that the overwhelming majority of students are receptive to our message. It doesn’t take long for them to connect the dots between the heartbreak they see in their own families and communities and what’s at the root of this heartbreak," said Michael Lahey, a missionary in New York.
Some of the missionaries have paid the price of not having received the fullness of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality soon enough, and they are all the more committed to saving the younger generation from falling for the lies of the sexual revolution.
"I honestly never really heard about chastity when I was a teen. Nobody told me about its benefits. I think the majority of young people don’t really hear it from their parents. What I heard from most people was: ‘Sex before marriage is normal; everybody’s doing it,’" said missionary Rebecca Hofmann.
Schleppenbach sees that now, more than ever, the Church has the opportunity to turn the tide of the sexual revolution through the truths of the faith.
Schleppenbach’s office couldn’t pass up the opportunity to invite the travel team of missionaries to work in Nebraska. He hopes to raise the funds needed to bring the missionaries back to speak at more schools.
The sponsoring diocese must cover the cost of lodging for the missionaries, as well as the use of a car, medical insurance and some administrative and training expenses, while the missionaries fundraise for their other living expenses.
"The culture is infested with a pedestrian view of sexuality, and the vast majority has not heard the fullness of the Church’s beautiful, God-ordained teaching on human sexuality. Gen Life’s missionaries have helped make it attractive for our youth to embrace the reality that respect for human sexuality fosters respect for life," Schleppenbach said.
He has seen indications that the children of baby boomers (also known as the "Millennial Generation") have witnessed and internalized the tragic toll of the sexual revolution, and they have been more open to chastity.
"I don’t think people really knew that they were opening a Pandora’s box," Barba commented about the past generation’s sexual licentiousness. "Young people are more and more open to seeing these lies."
The missionaries, "Millennials" themselves, have been positively influenced by Pope John Paul II and the work of various chastity speakers who’ve had a profound influence on their lives.
"I couldn’t see settling for anything less after I was exposed to the Church’s teaching on true love and sexuality," Dunlap said. "I’m worth waiting for," reads a sticker that Dunlop wears and Gen Life has distributed to more than half a million young people during presentations and pro-life rallies.
"How come no one taught me this when I was in middle school and high school? I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore," Hofmann recalled. "They taught me that I could be chaste and truly happy."
Hofmann schedules and coordinates the missionaries’ talks and oversees coordination with the national office. Above all, she makes sure that the missionaries put first things first — daily Mass and a Holy Hour — before hitting the road. "It’s not just about giving talks. It’s just really living out our faith and growing together," she said.
At present, the demand for missionaries outweighs the supply. "There are many more dioceses that want us there. We want to grow at a prudent rate, as we continue to invite young people to prayerfully consider devoting at least a year of their life to serve as missionaries," Barba said.
After working as a missionary in New York last year, Dunlap informed her mother that she was signing up for another year. "She’s definitely on board, and I feel most alive doing this work," she said. Her fear of public speaking is now a thing of the past, as she took to heart a friend’s word of advice — "God doesn’t call the qualified, but qualifies whomever he calls."
Jo Garcia-Cobb writes from Mount Angel, Oregon.