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MASS, SOCIAL EVENT KICK OFF EFFORT TO UNITE PARISH YOUTH

Linda Griesbaum and Remi Gonzalez want to see more kids in church and fewer kids on the streets.

Easier said than done? Maybe, but they think they have the answer and it involves rock 'n' roll.

Gonzalez, youth minister at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church at 11th Street and South Avenue, has seen a shift away from individual parishes in his 20 years of working with teens.

"What happens is we can't keep the kids in church and we can't get them to come back to church," said Gonzalez, who said he also turned his back on religion in his teens.

Since he's "been there, done that," Gonzalez knows kids won't be forced into the pews. But he has seen success at Sacred Heart since October 1998 with a different plan.

"What we decided to do is have young musicians who are very good and have them play and give them a time to play that's their Mass," said Gonzalez of the youth Mass celebrated at Sacred Heart at 6 p.m. each Sunday.

"During school time, the attendance was fantastic. During the summer, because of vacations and sports and all that, it dwindled, but during the last two weeks, we've seen the youth coming back. We really want to see the kids coming out, not because they are forced, but because they enjoy it," he said.

And the program is spreading beyond one parish. Mrs. Griesbaum said, "The reason we started with the Mass is that we felt if they had a positive experience in worship that the rest would come gradually."

"All of the directors of religious education and the youth ministers in the Niagara Falls area for the Catholic church have been getting together for about the last three or four months, and we're putting activities together on a large scale to provide programming outside of our individual parishes," said Mrs. Griesbaum, director of religious education for St. Leo Parish at 2748 Military Road.

"This is going to be a huge process that will really get these kids off the streets and educate them on drugs and alcohol and get them back into church and give them some kind of moral foundation," she added.

The first Niagara Vicariate Youth Mass will start at 6 p.m. Oct. 3 in Sacred Heart Church, 1917 11th Street.

A free social will follow in the school gym featuring a "DJ's Reunion" with Donny Walker from Kiss 98.5 FM, Mike Gonzalez, who is Remi Gonzalez's son, Ed Webster, Remi Gonzalez's nephew, and a friend of theirs known as "A.J."

Gonzalez said, "These guys have worked together the past 10 years on just about every fund-raiser bringing youth together. When Donny Walker heard about it, he said he wanted to do it himself."

The social is aimed at teens in grades 8 to 12, a group that is by nature social.

"They love to gather together," said Mrs. Griesbaum. "Twenty-five years ago, our parishes were the center of all our social activities. That's not the way it is anymore. They learn community through team sports and working together, but what's lacking is that faith element."

The Oct. 3 program is only the beginning. Officials of churches in the Western Niagara County Vicariate, which includes Catholic churches in Niagara Falls, Lewiston, Youngstown and North Tonawanda, hope to see the idea of working together grow.

"I was looking around and attending meetings throughout the dioceses and everyone was saying, 'There's so much to do,' and I was thinking, wait a minute, the youth ministers and the directors of religious education are basically doing the same thing only in different areas. There's no reason we shouldn't all be coming together collaborating our resources and work at tackling it together," said Mrs. Griesbaum. "The puzzle is all coming together wonderfully."

"What we're trying to create in all this is an atmosphere, an environment where everyone is thinking the same," said Gonzalez, who hopes when word of the success of this project gets around, other vicariates -- and even other denominations -- will follow their lead. "We're going out to get the youth. We want to grab them and bring them here."

Could giving kids a place to be on Sunday nights be a step toward avoiding another disaster such as the one that befell Columbine High School in Colorado?

Mrs. Griesbaum and Gonzalez think so and they aren't alone.

"My son is 17 years old and when all the crazy things were happening across the country last spring, I asked him what was going on," said Mrs. Griesbaum. "He said, 'Mom, those kids have a void in their life. They don't have spirituality. They're lacking the hope that our faith can give and they don't have an understanding that there is a God who guides us and helps us and is there to support us. They are on their own and they don't have hope.'

"That's coming out of a 17-year-old's mouth. We have to listen because the answers are coming from our kids," said Mrs. Griesbaum.

The first step in listening to youth is getting them together in a safe environment, something that teens are clamoring for, Gonzalez said.

"We had a seminar here in May. I was shocked by what kids said," he said. "Their biggest fear is violence in school. They are afraid to go to school. We have to address that."

Gonzalez hopes to start by attracting teen-agers to the Masses, which will be held on the first Sunday of each month. After they attend, "then we can start addressing their problems," he said. "You have to change with the times. We need to attract youth and not just from a parish. I'm hoping this will bring youth out from everywhere so we can talk to them and help them."

For more information on the Mass or the Oct. 3 social, call Linda Griesbaum at 297-3085 or Remi Gonzalez at 297-3290.

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