Military Kids and the Faith

Life Teen Links Up With Evangelical Group to Help ‘Third Culture Kids’

(photo: Evelyn Rennich, MCYM staff)

WASHINGTON — They’re known as “third culture kids,” sons and daughters of military personnel who move from base to base, never quite being part of the wider world.

Problems often experienced by teenagers are exacerbated by the life experiences of military kids.

“These teens are a subculture within a bigger youth culture,” said Randy Raus, president of Life Teen, an international Catholic ministry. “They don’t know from day to day if their parent will come home. They move frequently and become very resilient very quickly. They suffer from increased pressure that many teens in the U.S. just don’t feel.”

Now there is a Catholic outreach to this group, a partnership between the Arizona-based Life Teen and an evangelical youth ministry headquartered in Colorado called Military Community Youth Ministries.

“MCYM is the outgrowth of both Young Life and Youth for Christ, two wonderful organizations that reach kids with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but which aren’t real strong for the Catholic military kids,” said Patrick Barron, board member of Military Community Youth Ministries. “It was that realization that was the genesis of the affiliation with Life Teen.”

Said Barron, “It’s a match made in heaven.”

Military Community Youth Ministries is a collaborating member of the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry. It ministers to approximately 300,000 teenagers, nearly one-third of them Catholic, living on military installations in the United States and on overseas bases. The mobility of their families prevents military teens from putting down roots, and the relative isolation of the military installations where they reside can intensify the problems common to most teens.

The additional stress of living in a single-parent household, albeit temporarily, contributes to the teens’ increased vulnerability.

“Imagine the complications that can ensue when the steadying influence of a parent is absent due to the prolonged demands of a military deployment,” said William Lademan, retired Marine officer and director of the Marine Corps Wargaming Division. “Not only is the void felt, and perhaps resented, but it is magnified with emotion and dread if that absence entails service in time of war.

“The physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual need for a supportive family is crucial as the teenager merges with the demands and expectations of adulthood,” Lademan said.

Youth ministers from MCYM and Life Teen seek to help military kids meet these needs by building relationships with them through a program known as Club Beyond. Club Beyond staff and volunteers lead weekly meetings and activities such as ski trips, summer camps and overnight retreats.

Two-Pronged Approach

Raus explained the “two-pronged approach to evangelization” employed by the MCYM and Life Teen.

“Life Teen is centered on the Eucharist. Due to how the contracts with the Army are set up, we can’t encourage one faith over another at Club Beyond meetings. We do the majority of ministry at the parish on the base, by assisting with teen liturgies, catechesis, retreats and confirmation. Teens involved with Club Beyond are invited to Life Teen Masses, Life Nights or retreats in order to be formed and catechized. We are still fleshing out this model. We feel called to help, but not to water down at all the Catholic faith.”

Besides ministering to youth across the United States, Club Beyond also reaches out to teens in military communities around the world.

“In Europe today, over one in every three military teens participates in Club Beyond if the program is available at their installation,” said Marty McCarty, executive director of MCYM. “MCYM and Life Teen have been working together for several years in this endeavor. Currently there are plans to hire additional Life Teen staff who will serve with Club Beyond both at home and abroad.”

Last August, Life Teen staffer Marlo Dowdy hosted the European Catholic Youth Conference in Schoenstatt, Germany, in partnership with the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. The goal of the conference was to “gather military youth together to celebrate their faith and to explore more deeply what it means to be Catholic.” Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Services Archdiocese celebrated Mass and fielded questions from the teens, who were delighted by the archbishop’s interaction with them.

“The conference was a blessing to many military teens,” McCarty said.

Celebrate Life

Both blessings and challenges are part of a military teen’s life, and no one knows that better than Father Donald Calloway. The son of a naval officer, Father Calloway spent some of his youth at Atsugi Naval Air Station in Japan where, he admits, the “military culture” was “at odds with my nature.” In his powerful book No Turning Back: A Witness to Mercy, Father Calloway, now a member of the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception, chronicles his journey from dissolute youth to Catholic priest.

“Life for the children of military personnel can be very difficult,” Father Calloway said. “It’s tough being away from relatives and lacking that hometown environment to grow up in. Club Beyond could have been helpful to me when I was a military dependent living in Japan. I laud its efforts to reach out and help the teens who are living in foreign countries.”

So does Lademan. The father of six children, one of whom is a Marine Infantry officer, he believes that “the partnership between Life Teen and MCYM can supplement the depleted ability of a military family to provide firm ground, example and refuge during the teenage years. Camp Beyond can make real the love of a family, help bridge the time until an absent parent returns, and act as an occasion for God’s loving grace.”

“We at MCYM often say that ‘the silent casualties of combat are the wounded hearts of military families,’” McCarty said. “There is only one antidote for their suffering, and it is this: to celebrate life with military kids, introduce them to the Life-giver, and help them become like him.”

Celeste Behe writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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