Preaching Purity on the Jersey Shore
Generation Life Brings Countercultural Message to the Beach
BY Thomas L. McDonald
July 18-31, 2010 Issue | Posted 7/9/10 at 5:12 PM
On June 6, the producer of the reality show “Jersey Shore” admitted that she fed her promiscuous cast a steady diet of Valtrex in order to manage herpes outbreaks. In a roundtable discussion for The Hollywood Reporter, producer SallyAnn Salsano remarked, “We hand it out like M&Ms! ‘Hey kids, it’s time for Valtrex!’ It’s like a herpes nest. They’re all in there mixing it up.”
Stories reporting her comments appeared on the same day that Generation Life announced its summer “Chastity Outreach” program, which would take place at … the Jersey Shore.
The hedonistic “Jersey Shore” cast would be fighting a losing battle against STDs caused by their own reckless acts on the same ground that a small group of committed Catholic youth would be preaching purity.
In early June, approximately 20 Generation Life members hit the boardwalks of Ocean City, Wildwood, Sea Isle and Stone Harbor/Avalon to spread a message of chastity and pro-life values to their peers.
These young missionaries, all in their early 20s, are doing frontline work trying to persuade their peers to see the positive value of chastity.
“We’re promoting respectful and more loving relationships by spreading the message of chastity,” says missionary Erica George, a recent graduate of Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. “Instead of the idea that chastity is simply abstaining from sex until marriage, we explain that it is rather purity of thoughts, words and actions in a way that empowers us to respect and love each other better. This makes for the most loving relationships. The goal is to give each person we speak to hope that they deserve this kind of love.”
Generation Life is a small but passionate group that has grown steadily since it was founded in 2000. Over the past decade, the “Gen Lifers” are serving young people in the Southeastern Pennsylvania region and beyond, bringing their message of chastity and pro-life values to junior high, high school and college students.
For 2010, they timed their “beach outreach” program to coincide with one of the most active shoregoing seasons of the year for young people. By early June, with exams complete and colleges on summer break, the Jersey Shore swells with thousands of students mixing freedom, alcohol and sexual activity, often with dangerous results.
The goal of Generation Life missionaries is to provide a different perspective than the one offered by society. Says George, “We want to give them hope, that young people today don’t have to abide by cultural norms for sexuality, and that we were all made for far better.”
Spreading this kind of countercultural message in that particular environment has its own difficulties, according to Keith Beaver, Generation Life’s chastity educator: “One of the main challenges in getting the message across is the opposition that we sometimes face from the kids. The message is simply not accepted by everyone. It’s tough to continue to keep in mind that God is in control and that it is his message and not ours. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that and get discouraged, but God’s message is a message of hope, and that always needs to be remembered.”
The Fruits of the Spirit
On the beach and boardwalk, the missionaries see every reaction: hostility, mockery, dismissiveness, curiosity, engagement and even conversions of heart. No matter what the response, they see value in reaching out to young people with an alternative message. “One thing that is so important to remember in doing this,” says George, “is that the reaction does not indicate the fruit of this mission. Someone may react in a negative way but walk away thinking about the message. While there is nothing more rewarding than a prolonged discussion where someone is openly changed, which does happen, we know that the Holy Spirit is working in people we would never expect based on their response.”
The biggest challenge the missionaries face is overcoming their own fears of controversy and rejection. It takes a special kind of person to approach his or her peers in order to promote an unpopular set of values.
As George observes, “We all realize that any negative responses we face are not geared at us, but actually come from some kind of hurt. It can certainly be discouraging to see someone so closed off to the message and in the same breath quite encouraging to see people hungry for the message.
“While the 45-minute conversation in which someone unfolds and embraces truth is quite an ideal, it is always important to remember that every conversation can bear fruit. Seeing each and every person as deserving of knowing the truth, and loving them enough to bring it to them, is the key to overcoming this.”
That truth remains a hard sell, and success is difficult to measure. “Our efforts are undoubtedly fruitful,” says George. “I personally witnessed and engaged in some awesome conversations, and we were all surprised at the teens’ willingness to discuss relationships and sexuality even on a personal level. From people who had never even heard of chastity to people who had been taught a similar message, each person seemed surprised to hear such a message coming from their peers.
“In terms of measuring effectiveness, the best thing I can say is: There are hundreds of young people who left the beach having discussed a lifestyle of true love and freedom with us, or at the very least getting a pamphlet of information on the topic. I am confident that the Holy Spirit will continue working in each and every person who was exposed to the truth through us. We as a staff are continuing to pray for them, and only the Lord knows the measure of our success.”
Thomas L. McDonald is a
catechist in the Diocese of
Trenton, New Jersey.
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