Trailblazers re-publishes this article, which first appeared in the Michigan Catholic (reproduced here with permission), as it concerns one of the directors of Trailblazers, Alejandro Torres.

Urban outreach

The Archdiocese of Detroit has started a new ministry, based on a parish-based ministry at St. Michael Parish, Pontiac, to reach out to at-risk teens and young adults in urban areas. Here’s what’s already available at St. Michael Parish:


The Word on the Street
Young gang members? Drug addicts? They need the Gospel message – and a new archdiocese urban ministry will bring it to them

By Joe Kohn

Of The Michigan Catholic

            DETROIT – They hang out on street corners or near drug houses.

            They sometimes can be found drunk. Or high.

            Some have guns and knives, and enemies with guns and knives. Some have seen their friends die before their eyes.

            And they’re only teenagers. Or in their 20s.

            These are God’s children. So the Archdiocese of Detroit has begun a new ministry to go to the streets, and to bring them home to Christ.

            The key to this ministry – with the Holy Spirit and prayer – is peer power.

Building on a ministry that started two years ago at St. Michael Parish in Pontiac – where young people have brought the Word of God to Hispanic teenagers and young adults at high risk of falling into a culture of drugs and violence – the archdiocese has created a new Office of Urban Ministry. The office aspires to help urban-area parishes bring at-risk young people away from gangs, drugs, prostitution and violence, and closer to the Church.

“We’re responsible in the Church to reach out to youths,” says Joyce Francois, director of the Office for Youth Ministry, who is overseeing the new urban youth ministry. “To do ministry well within urban areas, you have to have leadership among the young people. We want that to be the focus.”

Making it happen

            It starts with people like Alejandro Torres.

            Torres, who as coordinator of ministry to urban youth is to be the catalyst for the new ministry, was hired in June, the month he turned 25 years old.

            He already knows what it’s like to respond to a bewildered mother concerned that her teenager is on the wrong path. He knows what it’s like to take to the streets with other young Catholics to find youths in gangs and bring the Word to them. He does this monthly with his ministry based at St. Michael Parish.

He’s already seen miracles.

Torres has been involved with at-risk youths since he himself was a teenager.

He’s seen the street-toughened youngster drop his façade. He’s cried with him.

He’s seen the gangsters come to the Lord and, literally, drop their weapons at his feet.

            “We go to the streets and the corners where the gangs meet – outside the bars or whatever,” says Torres, who grew up in the diocese of Chihuahua, Mexico and has just earned a master’s degree in systematic theology from Sacred Heart Major Seminary. “We start sharing the faith and start telling them that there is another way of living and that God really wants that way of living for them, and that God loves them so much that He has some great plan for them, and they can do it if they’re willing to.”

            What God inspires from there, he says, is amazing.

            “It’s received very well, actually, because there is a lot of need,” Torres says. “They, at the beginning, are a little rough and they don’t want to talk to you – but once they start hearing, they are so thirsty for it that they’ll start listening… I have seen so many good things and miracles happen when we are actually preaching and sharing the faith, as well as very beautiful, spiritual things.”

A model for ministry

            Street preaching is only one of the threads in the blanket of urban ministry the Church hopes to use to cover the urban areas of Detroit, Pontiac and possibly Port Huron.

            Other staples from the ministry – which is based on a movement out of Mexico called “Barrios Unidos en Christo,” or “Neighborhoods United in Christ” – are weekly faith-sharing meetings, intense retreats, training for leaders, basic Christian education for families, and even recreational programs in sports and the arts.

            To run these programs, leaders are needed. And, since young people are more apt to listen to their peers, the leaders should be their peers.

            “The main thing is to form a leadership team of youth and young adults so they can help all the youth ministers that are already working (at parishes) to help develop programs in each particular parish,” says Torres.

            In his two-year-old ministry at St. Michael Parish in Pontiac, Torres and his team of young adult ministers already is training youths and young adults to bring the Lord’s message of love to their peers. Torres also hopes to receive help with the archdiocesan-wide effort from a community of urban youth ministers from Mexico, who have experience in the Barrios Unidos en Christo movement.

            Torres says the “main pillar” of the ministry in Pontiac is a weekly meeting for at-risk urban youths, which is open to everyone. Many youths attend at their parent’s urging, or because the evangelization team, or their own peers, invited them.

            “They come with a goal to get out of the gang life or out of the drug life or whatever,” Torres says. “It has a lot of different activities and dynamics that empower them to find something else within a Catholic setting that truly fits them and fires up that little sparkle, which is all that’s needed for them to change.”

            Fr. Shawn Sylvester, pastor of St. Michael Parish, says the need for the urban ministry became clear when the parish’s youth group drew several at-risk youths.

            While it hasn’t been an instant success, Fr. Sylvester says, the ministry has been an effective one.

            “We haven’t seen dramatic overnight changes by any means, but I have seen kids who were very much on the edge of falling into some dangerous activity who have come back and began to change their lives and step out of that,” he says. “It takes an immense amount of patience and an immense amount of faith.”

Promising future

             Once the outreach begins, teens and young adults who accept God’s Word are given spiritual guidance through retreats, personal formation and, hopefully, leadership formation. It’s from there that many will accept the next phase of the Christian life – serving others as they have been served.

            Alejandro Barrera, one of the volunteer urban youth ministers who helps Torres at St. Michael Parish, can recall a time just a few years back in his life when he himself was in a gang and on drugs. He remembers when Catholic ministers brought the Word to him.

            “They started talking to me about God and they said I was living in a movie,” Berrera says. “They told me ‘God doesn’t make garbage in life.’

            “When we are in gangs, we act like we are happy – but we are cold in our hearts.”

            Now, Berrera is able to take the warmth of God’s love and bring it to others who were in the same position he was, and train others to do the same.

            “It’s going to be a change in the lives of these guys, and we’ve got to believe in them,” he says. “If nobody believed I could make a change in my life, I would still be doing drugs.”

            Becky Moreno, a youth who’s benefited from the parish’s ministry and who’s hoping to reach her friends with the Word of God, too, says she’s learned a lot from St. Michael Parish.

            “When I need (Jesus) and I pray, he’s listening,” Moreno says. “That goes for everyone…I just want everyone else to learn what I’m learning. I think it’s good for other people to learn about Jesus the way I do.”

            And that, in a simple sense, is the nature of the ministry – lighting the flame of God’s love in urban youths, kindling it, and watching it grow. And the new urban youth ministry is the archdiocese’s way of taking its candle into the darkness of the city streets.

            “It’s just like in the Gospel,” says Torres. “Christ doesn’t wait for us to go to Him. He comes to us.”

 - Article published in the Michigan Catholic, and reprinted here with permission.