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Youths and chaperones from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, Mill Valley, and St. Rita Church in Nanakuli, Oahu, Hawaii, gather at St. Rita during a June mission trip by the Our Lady of Mount Carmel youth group.

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Mission possible: Hawaii trip transforms Marin youths
August 21st, 2013
By Lidia Wasowicz Pringle

Who says teens can’t find faith to be fundamental, fulfilling and fun?

Just ask the newly formed youth group at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Mill Valley, which recently discovered the rich rewards of religion at an impoverished Hawaiian church.

The 20 high school students and six chaperones came home transformed July 1 from a week-long mission at the 115-year-old St. Rita Parish in Nanakuli, Oahu, where the “aloha” spirit spreads freely among the largely destitute native congregation and affluent mainland visitors favoring the off-the-tourist-beaten track.

“At first, I believe because of the shyness, the youth from Hawaii and the youth from Mill Valley didn’t mix as well as we hoped, but after a few days they all became very close,” said Father Alapaki Kim, St. Rita pastor.

The captivating cross-cultural liturgies, contagious community-building attitudes and compassionate outreach programs sampled by the travelers have left an enduring, spiritually enhancing impression.

“The trip affected my relationship with Jesus and my fellow parishioners much more than I thought possible,” said Zach Thomas, 15, of Mill Valley, a junior at Tamalpais High School and member of the Mount Carmel youth ministry since its inception last year.

“I was happier to go to church the week after we got back than I had ever been in my life, and I look forward to Sundays.”

His newfound appreciation of Mass stirred as he received the ritual welcome hug, kiss, lei and community greeting at St. Rita, strengthened during rites incorporating Hawaiian language, music, culture and Catholic traditions and settled in for good at a candlelit ceremony of washing feet in a show of humility and equality.

“As we sang, there was crazy energy in the air,” Thomas said. “I’ve never seen teens so lively about church events.”

Whether surfing, canoeing, hiking, feeding the homeless, cooking in the underground imu or praying, the Mount Carmel adolescents drew inspiration from their hosts’ focus on faith, family and friends.

“On the mainland, it’s more about rugged individualism, but over there, it’s all about community,” said Thomas, who maintains contact with his extended “‘ohana,” or family, through social media and already looks forward to the next get-together planned for summer 2014.

As does Danielle Tirpack, 17, of Mill Valley, a lifelong Mount Carmel parishioner, recent youth group member and senior at Tamiscal, an independent study school.

Having overcome initial fears of being “brainwashed” and immersed in too much religion, which “turns off us teenagers,” she pronounced the Hawaii experience “a perfect balance.”

“We had reflection time which brought us all closer (and) a place to analyze our world with God,” said Tirpack, one of seven girls on the immersion tour. “We had a chance to learn and apply new life lessons.”

The most moving, meaningful and memorable ones, she said, centered around serving the homeless in the parish situated on Hawaiian Homelands – the equivalent of the mainland’s Indian reservations – on the Waianae coast, where U.S. Census figures place the per capita income at just over $13,000.

“It was eye opening to see … those who are less fortunate be so happy with so little,” said Tirpack, who helped hand out the contents of seven suitcases stuffed with used attire. “It was an experience I will never forget.”

The vision of an 11-year-old girl proudly parading in a dress discarded by the donor stayed with Tirpack weeks later as she looked at $200 outfits with her mom. They left the store without making a purchase.

“We are delighted that the teens returned with what they said was a life-changing experience,” said Scott Chapman, a longtime supporter of St. Rita who helped chaperone the youth.

He and wife Celeste had proposed the destination for the mission with the fourfold purpose of shared spirituality, cultural appreciation, service to the needy and leadership development.

“Hopefully, those experiences lead to a greater recognition of Christ’s presence in our own homes and school hallways,” said Jonathan Lewis, former director of religious education at Mount Carmel who had championed greater teen parish involvement before moving to Washington, D.C., earlier this year.

The end result was such a success, 40 families already have expressed an interest in next year’s cultural exchange, said youth ministry mentor and chaperone Venessa Dixon, who spearheaded the trip financed by student-led fundraising ranging from car washes and bake sales to bingo and ladies’ nights and a luau in the church parking lot.

“I can honestly say this trip forever affected and touched every one of us who went,” she said.



From August 23, 2013 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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