April 9, 2010

'The need to be loved or accepted': Youth minister’s unique approach leads teenagers to a deeper understanding of faith

As the coordinator of youth ministry at St. Maurice Parish in Decatur County and chaplain of the North Decatur High School football team, Dave Gehrich is always searching for new ways to bring the message of Christ’s life to teenagers, including football players. Gehrich is pictured here talking to the North Decatur team during their visit to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis for a game in 2007. (Submitted photo)

As the coordinator of youth ministry at St. Maurice Parish in Decatur County and chaplain of the North Decatur High School football team, Dave Gehrich is always searching for new ways to bring the message of Christ’s life to teenagers, including football players. Gehrich is pictured here talking to the North Decatur team during their visit to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis for a game in 2007. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

He is known for his humor and his unusual props when he speaks to teenagers about faith, but Dave Gehrich still elicited more than a few “Can you believe he’s doing this?!” looks when he gave a talk about people’s relationships with God while standing behind a shower curtain.

Gehrich figured the shower curtain would get the full attention of the high school students on retreat, and he was right. Still, there was a deeper purpose to using the prop. He wanted a visible way to show the barriers that people often put up in their relationships with God.

“I pointed out to the group that they could see me, they could hear me, but they could never touch me,” says Gehrich, a popular speaker at archdiocesan events for youths. “As long as I kept that barrier between us, we could never have a complete relationship. So it is with their relationship with God.

“Most of the time, we don’t even notice the barrier being established in our relationship with God. It just seems to exist one day. Other times in our life, we know exactly when it was established—during a time when we have become angry with God or disappointed in our faith. Regardless of how the barrier gets there, it holds us back from the intimate relationship [that] God wants to have with us. Just a thin layer is all it takes to keep us from the loving arms of God.”

At the end of the talk, the high school seniors were encouraged to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation. Most of them did, some for the first time in years.

“They wanted to drop that layer keeping them from their Lord,” Gehrich says.

A life-changing moment

The picture of Gehrich behind a shower curtain is part of the portrait of one of the most interesting youth ministers in the archdiocese.

Now the coordinator of youth ministry at St. Maurice Parish in Decatur County, the 45-year-old Gehrich is also a chaplain for a high school football team and uses Facebook to connect with players.

In his travels as the vice president of a chemical company, he often passes the time talking to God and seeking inspiration from the Holy Spirit for the props he uses in his talks to youths. (For the record, Gehrich gives credit for the shower curtain idea to the Holy Spirit.)

The father of three is also a former fallen-away Catholic. Here’s just how far he once had fallen away: He would drive his then-small children to religious education classes on a Sunday morning, walk them to the classroom, and return to his car in the church parking lot, where he would read the newspaper instead of attending Mass.

Then one moment changed his faith and his life—a moment that could be described as pulling back the curtain of his relationship with God. That moment involved his wife of 23 years, Angie.

“She was raised with no religion whatsoever,” Gehrich recalls. “Ten years after we got married, I was really away from the Church. I was on a business trip to Las Vegas, and she had to take our two girls to church because they were singing in the choir. She went to Mass to pass the time. When I called home that night, she said, ‘I want to tell you something, but you can’t ask any questions. I want to become a Catholic.’

“On Holy Saturday night, I was sitting in the church and watching the most important person in my life get baptized. I said to myself, ‘You’re a real idiot. You’ve been raised in the Church, and you didn’t do anything with it.’ I had no value of it. She saw the value of it. She took the risk to become a Catholic.

“Watching her, I asked God to use me. Two weeks later, I was asked to be a catechist for seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Shelbyville. Those kids and I learned about our faith at the same pace. I fell in love with it.”

Finding the greatness within teenagers

Even at 45, Gehrich has a natural affinity for teenagers. He views the teen years as a time when youths struggle with their doubts and fears while they try to find their place in the world. He remembers vividly his own struggles as a youth, especially dealing with the jokes and comments about him being overweight.

“I can understand and appreciate a lot of the things they go through,” he says. “I look at teenagers and see their greatness. But I understand how they feel. I was a teenager who didn’t see that greatness in myself. Now I tell kids all the time, ‘I’m not that smart, but great things have happened in my life.’ If you can help them experience their greatness, feel it, whatever, they’ll be able to trust it. But it’s so hard for them to trust it.”

Gehrich helps build that trust and helps lead teenagers to a deeper understanding of their faith, says Kay Scoville, the archdiocese’s director of youth ministry.

“Probably the greatest admiration that I have for him is that he puts himself out there,” Scoville says. “He admits to his shortcomings or jokes about his size, and makes himself vulnerable. In this teenage world of donning masks and hiding behind technology, he makes it OK for them to be real. He offers them an opportunity to come out of their shell, and realize that it is OK to be Catholic and it is OK to love Jesus—because no matter who we are or what we have done, Jesus loves us.”

One of Gehrich’s biggest fans is his daughter, Megan. As a 20-year-old college student, it wouldn’t be unusual if she distanced herself from her father. Instead, she has followed him in trying to bring young people closer to Christ. She often gives talks at the same conferences where her dad speaks.

“Many people ask me if it’s weird being the daughter of a youth minister,” says Megan, a junior at Marian University in Indianapolis. “It’s not. It’s one of the ways God has been able to reach me. My dad is my biggest inspiration to live the Catholic faith—and help others live it.”

She was there the time he gave his talk behind a shower curtain.

“I thought, ‘Only my dad would use a shower curtain to connect with youths,’ ” she says with a laugh. “He’s an amazing speaker. I’ve heard him talk for 20 years, and I still listen to him. It’s awesome to hear what he says and see how it affects the youths he’s talking to.”

‘The need to be loved or accepted’

Gehrich’s different approach to youth ministry is revealed in his role as the chaplain of the football team at North Decatur High School in Greensburg.

“We pray before every game in the locker room, and we pray on the field after the game, including the cheerleaders, the band members and the fans in the stands,” he says.

“I wanted to reach out to the team a little more by using Facebook. I go home and choose a Bible passage that I think connects with how we played football that night. I write a message that I call ‘the line of scrimmage.’ Any of the players who are on Facebook can see it. So can anyone else on Facebook. Several times, I’ve had high school football players from other states write me about what I wrote.”

For Gehrich, the use of technology is a perfect way to connect the Catholic faith to young people.

“These kids are just addicted to Facebook,” he says. “Why? It’s all designed to satisfy the need to be loved or accepted. Teenagers want to be part of a community. Well, what is the Catholic Church? It’s a great community. We can use technology to share our faith. With my cell phone, I can send a text message saying, ‘I’m thinking of you and saying a prayer for you.’ With Facebook, we can have a Bible study among friends or put up a Bible passage.

“Technology in itself is a wonderful gift from God. He created the minds that created it, and he created the minds that use it. We just have to seek out the good and avoid the bad.”

God creates a cross for everyone

The choices people make about their faith is a constant theme for Gehrich, one that surfaced again when he gave a talk to more than 200 youths from across the archdiocese during “Consumed 2010,” a eucharistic retreat at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis on March 5-7.

As he spoke about the topic of “Christ Crucified,” he had already placed a whip, a crown and a replica of a crucifixion nail on the table in front of him.

“What is that God wants you to understand about the Cross?” Gehrich asked the teenagers. “What is it that God wants you to understand about the Crucifixion?”

For Gehrich, the answers are clear: God has created a cross for everyone, a cross that he wants each person to carry back to him.

“God specifically created a cross for you so precise that it’s not one inch too long, not one ounce too heavy,” he told the youths. “You can be the toughest guy here today, and there’s a cross for you. You can be the quietest little girl here today, and there’s a cross for you.

“You’re going to have challenges. You’re going to have struggles. Whatever struggle you have, Christ has already conquered it. And as you deliver your cross back to him, I think we find out that it’s a piece of the puzzle, and it fits in his cross.”

Gehrich embraces his cross and the Catholic faith he once lost. He rejoices in leading young people to Christ.

“I have a relationship with God, and I’m guided by that,” he says. “It guides everything I do.” †

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